ESL volunteers provide a bridge to self-sufficiency

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Teaching, learning: Joliet resident Eduvina Onate, volunteer tutor for the free college ESL adult education and literacy program at Joliet Junior College, stands next to one of the students she tutors, Mayra Contreras from Joliet.

It is not difficult to find private English language tutoring, a service that can cost individuals and families anywhere from $25 to $90 per hour. For many people in Illinois and Indiana, this price simply isn’t affordable.

But other options exist, many of which are completely free and available to those who want to learn, better their lives and function well in an increasingly complex society. Citizenship, economic stability, job security, self-sufficiency and the ability to communicate with schools, doctors and other professionals all depend on learning and understanding the English language.

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In Illinois, ESL courses are provided through state and federal funding via the Illinois Community College Board. These programs change lives by working to get adults the assistance they need to improve their English fluency. Just ask Eduvina Onate, a volunteer tutor at Joliet Junior College.

“Working here gives me a huge opportunity to support people who need help,” Onate said. “When I see that my students have learned a new word, it makes me feel that I have done my job. I know that keeping up with tutoring is going to make them feel more confident in their everyday lives.”

At age 33, Onate used the ESL services and one-on-one tutoring at JJC, which enabled her to pass her GED exam. She then earned her volunteer tutor training credentials and went on to help other ESL students.

“Eduvina uses her personal experience to help drive her instruction and inspire her students,” said Emilie McCallister, director of Adult Education and Literacy at Joliet Junior College. “She has faced what most of her students are going through and she is an example of how far they can go. Her students are grateful for her help and they never stop telling me about how patient she is. When Eduvina tutors at a local library, people from the community approach her to see if they too can get help. When she added yet another student to her tutoring group, I asked if she was doing alright with the workload in addition to her college preparations, and she simply replied that it’s not work, it’s fun.”

As a literacy trainer and support specialist at JJC, Mandy Paquette knows how difficult it can be to ask for help when you’re not proficient in English.

“It’s always rewarding to see how thankful and surprised people are when they realize they can get the help they need for free. It’s not an opportunity they waste.

“ESL students improve their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills, and often transition to adult basic education or GED courses with the ultimate goal of obtaining or retaining employment, and/or entering an occupational training program,” Paquette said.

In Indiana, the Northwest Indiana Literacy Coalition (NILC) assiduously works toward connecting language and literacy programs with the people there that require them.

“The Coalition is an issue driven group, involved with literacy and literacy related issues,” said Carol Moore, Northwest Indiana Literacy Coalition, board of directors.

Incorporated in 1987, the NILC has been responsible for literacy promotion and advocacy in seven counties of Northwest Indiana. The members of NILC represent Adult and Basic Education programs and they refer individuals in need to a plethora of programs including English as a Second Language (ESL).

“An all-volunteer organization, the coalition promotes public awareness, cooperative partnerships, information sharing and referrals between literacy programs and communities. The coalition sponsors [literacy] events and activities as well,” Moore said.

Free ESL classes are also offered at the Lake County Public Library in Merrillville, Ind.

“The ESL classes are free and taught by trained and educated volunteer tutors,” said Rosella Garcia, literacy coordinator at Lake County Public Library. “Our student population over the last five years has consisted of people from over 35 different countries!”