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The nonprofit organization commits to helping non-native born senior citizens

CONNECTION PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Grace McLaughlin teaches an English class at Multnomah Arts Center.

This story was updated from its original version

Sitting around a table full of students in the middle of the hallway of the Neighborhood House enclave in the Multnomah Arts Center, Peruvian immigrant Maria Mendoza-de Cano describes her ideal lunch in English — her second language.

After Mendoza-de Cano says she eats a chicken sandwich, a salad and ice cream or apple pie, teacher Grace McLaughlin's hands clench together and expand outward, signaling the substantial size of Mendoza-de Cano's lunch preference.

In this ESL class put on by Neighborhood House — a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to vulnerable populations such as seniors, children and the homeless — a group of immigrants from across the world meet to learn the English language. The class is a part of a senior outreach project, which Neighborhood House started a year and a half ago to better serve senior immigrants.

"We realized that the majority of the folks that we were serving were caucasian. We realized we weren't reaching the full diversity. We know the population is getting more diverse, and we wanted to make sure we were making sure everyone could access our services," Neighborhood House Development Director Mari Yerger said.

According to a recent study by the Coalition of Communities of Color posted in the Neighborhood House spring newsletter, 20 percent of elderly immigrants and 44 percent of elderly refugees in Multnomah County suffer from depression, compared to only 7 percent of the general population. Yerger surmises that isolation is a primary cause of this disparity.

"We had talked to people in especially the Somali community and knew that there were a lot of elders who were basically staying at home all the time and waiting for their families to get home from work, or being left alone and lacking in important connections," Yerger said.

Neighborhood House links with Ride Connection to provide transportation to the Multnomah Arts Center and also partners with facilities that offer affordable housing for seniors. At Multnomah Arts Center, attendees can take classes such as the ESL class, tai chi and bridge; there's even a yoga class designed for Somali women. Seniors also sometimes go on outings, such as visits to the Japanese Garden.

The Concordia Foundation gave Neighborhood House a $50,000 grant to jumpstart the program. Yerger said that now, about one-third of attendees aren't native-born.

"The program almost immediately transformed our demographics of those who use our senior services," Yerger said. "Once people get in the door, they're sold because it's a very warm and welcoming environment here. People really appreciate the community feel and amount of support they get."

Mendoza-de Cano moved from Peru 17 years ago and had attended the ESL classes for four months by the beginning of April. Her family members work during the day and she says the program provides her with satisfying social interaction as an alternative to staying at home by herself.

"I like coming because I laugh, I talk with my friends," she said. "At my house it's only me. So I come in here."

Sedighe Sherifi immigrated from Iran to the United States 20 years ago. Most of her family does not live in the United States, and she says being without them is challenging.

"It's a little bit hard," she said.

She speaks clearly, but isn't confident in her English skills yet. However, Sherifi says she's improving while also developing friendships.

"When I'm here I love talking English. I'm trying. I'm not very good, but I'm trying," she said. "I love the people; they're very nice. They're like my sister or brother."

Before teaching the ESL class, McLaughlin taught composition and English classes at Portland Community College. She mostly taught teenagers at PCC, though, and says she prefers teaching the elderly immigrants.

"They are so enthusiastic and so willing and so loving. The community of the class and the socialization is incredible. We have a really good time," McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin says that for the immigrants, joining a welcoming group is as important as learning English.

"They're happy to do it and that's as important as anything else — having some place to go where they are happy," she said.

And while McLaughlin has taught the seniors as much as she can, she's also learned a thing or two about language as well.

"They're teaching me their languages," she said. "I know a little Russian now. I know a little Spanish."

Yerger would like to expand the program, but she says county funding has receded in recent years. Keeping the program afloat could prove challenging, she says, and private donations could be vital.

"I think of course we would love to be able to do more. But most of the funding for senior services in Multnomah County has been reduced, including transportation, including funding for other senior services. So we will be dependent on being able to raise the funding from private donations to be able to keep the program going," Yerger said.

Contact Connection reporter Corey Buchanan at 503-636-1281 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Correction: ESL teacher Grace McLaughlin's name was mispelled in a previous version of this article.

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