By Caitlin Russell
WEST COLUMBIA — Weekday afternoons are hectic at Mount Hebron United Methodist Church where, just as some parents are picking up their kids from Mount Hebron's day school, others are arriving to attend classes themselves.
These people are attending the English for Speakers of Other Languages classes, officially titled English Skills for Life and Work. Teachers from Lexington County School District One teach these classes from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays, and focus on the English skills that will be most helpful in the daily lives of the participants.
The program, which runs for six weeks, began when the school district contacted Mount Hebron about holding ESOL classes during the day. Mount Hebron, the parent church for the UMC s West Metro Hispanic Ministry, has helped with evening classes in the past, but has never headed up an effort like this. The Rev. Mandy Taylor Young presented the idea to the church council, which voted unanimously in favor of the new ministry.
Young sees this as a way to minister to Hispanic neighbors.
Our prayer is that Mount Hebron is a church where people can come and be loved and trust our community, Young said.
The school district provided three certified ESOL teachers, an administrator, a social worker and a program consultant to help with the effort, while Mount Hebron provided their building, childcare and support from the congregation. Mount Hebron also has a bus available to pick up participants who might not otherwise have transportation to classes. The bus is driven by licensed volunteers and supported financially by a men s group at the church.
Before beginning classes, students were tested and divided into three different levels. The majority of the participants are originally from Mexico, but there are also some from Peru and Puerto Rico. Many can comprehend English fairly well, but are less comfortable speaking it. The classes are geared towards mothers and try to increase their ability to communicate about important things like school and doctor s appointments, but classes are open to anyone who would like to attend.
The teachers say that while it is difficult to see improvement in only six weeks, many participants have already become more comfortable speaking English. Julia Frazier-Madge, who teaches the beginning level, said she and the other teachers try to make it so that it s comfortable, safe and fun so that the students enjoy what they re doing.
Eva Herrera, a student in the program, said her goal is to learn English so that if the kids have a conference at school I can understand.
Another student, Guadalupe Vasquez, had similar reasons: English is necessary because when we go to the doctor it is not easy to communicate, she said. I like to talk with moms of the friends of my daughter, but sometimes this is limited so I stay quiet.
Childcare is required for all ESOL classes, but had proven challenging at previous evening classes held at Brookland UMC in West Columbia through the West Metro ministry. Large numbers and a wide range of ages of children made finding space and volunteers difficult, but holding classes during the day has eliminated many of these problems. Because most children are in school at this point, parents are free to atte
nd the classes, and Mount Hebron staff members are available to care for any children who are not yet old enough to attend school. Three paid childcare staff are funded through grants, and a team of church volunteers helps, as well.
Some of the staff can speak Spanish, but they try to immerse the children in an English-speaking environment to expose them to the language before they begin going to school. Children range from 6 months to 6 years old, and for many of the kids, this is the first time they have been away from their mothers. This was a problem at first, but as classes continued, the children began to look forward to the time to play with others in a different environment. Just in case, parents sign out beepers at the beginning of each class so that if there are any issues, childcare workers can easily contact them.
Flyers about the classes were placed in schools, churches and in the community, but word of mouth seems to have been the most effective advertisement. When classes began, there were more than 50 students with around 25 children, and Mount Hebron s facilities were at full capacity. Overall, attendance has averaged around 35 students with 18 children, but some days are more crowded than others.
As a finale to the successful program, the church has scheduled a visit to the children s museum in Columbia and a celebration in the church fellowship hall. The museum will be an opportunity for participants to feel comfortable in a place that relies heavily on English language skills, as well as a chance for them to experience the museum with their children when otherwise they might not be financially able to do so.
Program coordinator Edith Castillo-Damian said they plan to continue the program when school resumes in the fall, but expansion into other churches in different areas throughout Columbia would be beneficial.
Julie Capobianco, who helped spearhead the project, is grateful for the efforts of Mount Hebron.
I believe in this so strongly, Capobianco said, I m thrilled it has worked out so well and that the church has been so supportive of our ministry.
Students said they, too, appreciate the church s ministry and are very thankful for the classes. They think the classes and teachers are wonderful and can t wait to come back in the fall.