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Learning without borders

Free English classes offered Monday evenings at Rolling Hills Community Church


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - ELL teacher Glenda Burns has some fun with her student Mauricio Flores during a class at Rolling Hills Community Church.It started with small conversations around a small table. Glenda Burns and Ana Ramirez would help watch the children of three different women during a free, weekly meal at Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin. As they did, they learned more and more about the women’s lives.

The women, who didn’t speak English, would ask for help on how to navigate the language on things such as money orders and job applications. Without English, they were closed off to some of the most basic elements of life. Gradually, the meetings became more frequent and turned into classes, with Burns as teacher and Ramirez as translator. Three years later, the number of students far exceeds that initial handful, Burns isn’t the only teacher and free English classes (ranging from beginning to advanced) are offered at the church every Monday night.

“If I were living here and I had to work and raise my children and be outside of my own language, by the time I got home from work, there is no way you’d see me in a foreign language class,” Burns said. “They need a timeout. That’s kind of what I want this class to be is the timeout place, but they’re getting English, too.”

To date, 109 students from a total of 12 different countries of origin have registered for classes. This week, six new students showed up to learn, and 18 joined over the last few weeks alone. With daycare and activities provided for the students’ children, most Mondays are met with at least 60 people, all in the pursuit of learning English or helping others achieve the same goal.

For Burns, helping others reach their fullest potential is what’s prompted her to keep elevating the English Language Learning program over the years, though she’s quick to point out that she isn’t the only person keeping it running — it takes a team of hardworking and dedicated people, students included, she said.

Two students, Jesus Rodriguez and Adriana Perez, a married couple, attended their first ELL class at Rolling Hills on Monday night. The pair moved from Oxaca, Mexico, to Oregon eight years ago without any family in the state, have a 7-year-old son, and both work — Rodriguez at a flower arrangement shop and Perez at a Mexican grocery store. They moved here to better their lives and they’re still trying to achieve their goals.

“I tried (to learn English) before, but just a little,” said Rodriguez, in slow, thoughtful English. “For big conversations, I can’t do it. I understand probably 30 percent.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - ELL students work on the alphabet and basic English sentence structure.

His wife, however, has never taken English classes, and seemed to rely on Rodriguez to answer the majority of questions aimed at them. To help ease the anxiety of responding in a foreign language, the class is aimed at simply building confidence and letting the students know that not everything they say has to come out in perfect English — they just have to try.

“I know it’s a hard language. Any language is hard. Anything after you’ve worked all day and you have kids in your face is hard. So I’m just trying to make it fun and take away the intimidation,” Burns said. “I think that’s what inspires me so much — they desperately want to improve their lives, and they’re doing it.”

According to Burns and Ramirez, many of the students arrive with the goal of wanting to be able to communicate with their children’s teachers; they want to communicate more fully with their children themselves; they want to qualify for a promotion, get a better job or own their own business. They don’t want their language limitations to be what limits them from accessing all that they can.

“For me, I just wanted to keep helping because I’ve seen so many people struggle or go without just because of the language barrier. Or they would miss out on opportunities because they just didn’t know. That was a terrible thing,” said Ramirez, who is bilingual in Spanish and English. “It is a very important resource. Just being able to communicate is a huge barrier for a lot of people.”

In the beginning classes, Burns focuses lessons on everyday words that her students need. If a lot of landscapers are enrolled, she might focus a lesson on plants and tools. If a lot of her students work in restaurants, she’ll call them from the hall and they have to decipher her order. In the more advanced classes, lessons might be focused more on reading comprehension and writing, as the students are more able to converse.

“If you say ‘beautiful,’ I understand,” said Tony Raffei, who is in the intermediate/advanced class. “But, if I read ‘beautiful,’ I don’t know what it means.”

Whatever the need, Burns and her teachers try to supply the remedy.

“Our program is really different. This is more of, ‘We’re going to serve up the English and see where you’re at and what you need today,’” Burns said. “They can (do this) because they’ve got so much life experience and they know everything I’m trying to teach in their own language. I’m just trying to give them some English words to map that out.”

Some of Burns’ passion for what she’s doing comes from her experiences of traveling the world in her 20s, and plopping herself down in various places where she didn’t speak the language. Decades later, Burns remembers what it was like to be out of her element and to not be able to verbally communicate with anyone around her. The difference, she said, is that she could leave if it didn’t work out. For most of the students she sees, that isn’t an option. And yet, she leaves class every Monday night inspired and hopeful for her students’ lives.

“I am so inspired and impressed by immigrants and refugees. The hurdles that they have to overcome, how hard they work to hold onto their own sense of value and person. They’re dealing with everything we all deal with — sick kids, loneliness — you throw all that into the bucket that everybody has, but then they don’t have the English to deal with it,” she said. “I can’t eat before a class because I get so excited about teaching it and anxious that it’s all going to come together. And I walk out of here and I feel like I’m walking on water just having had this time with them.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jesus Rodriguez and Adriana Perez are two ELL students taking advantage of the classes at Rolling Hills Community Church.

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