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ESOL ministries: a good fit for Florida

ESOL ministries: a good fit for Florida

It was on a boating trip with friends that Rev. Cherie Chapman opened her heart about a mission she had prayed would find a home at her church: teaching English to those who spoke another language, also known as ESOL.

On the trip with her was Bonnie Taylor. She had taught ESOL classes in Connecticut for several years before moving to Fort Myers and joining Tice UMC. She told Chapman she had prayed for God to lead her back to that mission. 

Adult tutoring three children of different races
In a state that's becoming home to a growing number of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, helping newcomers learn English can be a powerful gift to enhance their future. Photo from

Within a week, the prayers of both women were answered.

Two Spanish-speaking women came to Tice UMC, where Chapman is pastor, looking for English language classes.

"God just put everything in place," Chapman said.

Five years later, Tice is among Florida Conference churches reporting the blessings of changing lives and opening doors for people who have been marginalized by language barriers. Some host programs at their church, while others volunteer off-site or pool their resources with neighboring churches to offer the gift of English to others.

The program at Tice started with a handful of students meeting twice a week and has expanded to include free family and adult classes several times a week. The church also has partnered with the Literacy Council Gulf Coast and adopted the council’s Carol DeJoy Moms & Tots literacy program.

About 30 to 35 women attend Moms & Tots, and 15 to 30 people attend adult evening classes. Many are migrant workers and day laborers, often from Guatemala, who live near the church and work in the Immokalee area.

"We are in a very poor neighborhood," said Chapman, whose church counts about 120 worshipers on Sundays. "(ESOL students) are walkers. They walk to wherever they are going. They are lucky if they have a bicycle. Transportation is something they aspire to but not something they often attain." 

Mothers with kids in strollers raise hands to respond to a teacher in English class
Classes that help immigrants with children learn English, like this one at Grace Place near Naples, prepare families for school and doctor's office conferences, as well as better employment opportunities. 2012 file photo by Susan Green.

Depending on attendance, four to six tutors help with classes. At Moms & Tots, mothers take classes while their kids go to day care and their own ESOL program tailored to children. The families are hungry for education.

"Education is a key to not being a day laborer," Chapman said. "They see this much more clearly than our native folks."

Meeting community needs

That’s also true for immigrants who settle in the northwest part of Florida. Watching people use newfound English skills to land better-paying jobs is among the rewards of ESOL ministry for Pat Striplin, a member of Killearn UMC, Tallahassee.

A retired educator, she has organized ESOL classes for Spanish-speakers at Greensboro UMC in neighboring Gadsden County since 2008. The ministry recently tapped some French-speaking volunteers to help teach English to a growing number of Haitian residents.

More than 30 volunteers from four churches participate on a rotating basis. Each Thursday evening, they board a bus to Greensboro, about 45 minutes away, and spend two hours tutoring about 50 adults and children from a largely rural community with a high illiteracy rate.

“Our goal is to help them learn English in a Christ-centered environment,” Striplin said.

Volunteers come not only from Killearn but Good Samaritan and Chaires United Methodist churches and a Baptist church, all in Leon County. Classes follow a curriculum tailored to varying skill levels. State-certified teachers lead each class but depend on others to help English learners become comfortable with speaking a non-native language. 

Greensboro UMC photo of sanctuary
Volunteers from three United Methodist churches and one Baptist church in Leon County travel to Greensboro UMC in a rural community to help Spanish- and French-speaking immigrants learn English. Florida Conference file photo.

“They need conversational skills to help them as they shop or go to their child’s school (for parent-teacher conferences) or go to the doctor,” Striplin said.

Volunteers at Greensboro and the other churches take turns providing food that is served before classes, Striplin said, and sometimes students bring a dish from their native country.

Across the state, in Jacksonville, Faith UMC is another church reaching out to an immigrant community, this time mostly Cuban refugees. The congregation began English classes about two years ago.

Jacksonville is home to one of several federally funded refugee resettlement programs managed by the state. By agreement with Cuba, up to 20,000 Cubans migrate annually. Other immigrants come from Haiti, Russia, Myanmar (also known as Burma), Burundi and Iraq.

Faith UMC provides worship services in Spanish, as well as space for refugees from Myanmar to hold worship and special events.

"It's a wonderful fit," said church volunteer Donna Glasner. "We seem to have led our congregation to embrace refugees."

A church of about 80 Sunday worshipers, Faith relies on volunteers and donations to conduct weekly classes for about five students.

"We are a bunch of non-teachers," Glasner said. "Nobody is trained as a teacher or in ESOL. It's just volunteers trying to help people in the community who need to improve English skills."

Glasner bought the book "ESOL for Dummies" to aid tutors. Classes are taught in English only, though on occasion Google is used for translations, Glasner said.

“It's a real blessing to be able to get to know people as they go through classes," she said.

Better language skills, better life 

Donna Glasner, left, with student Zonia Cruz in ESOL tutoring at Faith UMC
Donna Glasner, left, helps Zonia Cruz, originally from Cuba, improve her English skills at Faith UMC, Jacksonville. Photo from Faith UMC.

Grassroots efforts from churches of all denominations and local nonprofit organizations can help fill education gaps, said Jan Setzekorn, literacy services director at UMCM Suncoast, formerly known as United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, in the Florida Conference’s Gulf Coast District. The agency's literacy sites include Wesley UMC and Pasadena Community Church in St. Petersburg and Manatee UMC, Bradenton. Anona UMC sponsors classes in Largo, along with Pinellas Park Library and Highpoint YMCA.

Suncoast supports programs aimed at ending poverty. Volunteers can train to be tutors there, as well as at the Literacy Council Gulf Coast.

"We look at it from the standpoint of Methodism, which believes in helping people in need whether they have money or not," Setzekorn said. "It (literacy) is the most incredible way to change a life beyond anything I could ever imagine. It's almost like having a magic wand."

For many, ESOL classes can be about economics. "Anyone who speaks English is going to make more money," Setzekorn said. "If your hope is for citizenship, it's a requirement."

Suncoast aims to teach family members together and intentionally provides sites where clusters of immigrants have sprung up in order to overcome transportation issues.

"School systems are starting to recognize the value of grassroots programs," Setzekorn said. "We can work with students who might not ever walk into a large building. We don't expect them to come to us. We come to them. We meet their needs.”

For volunteers in the Greensboro UMC outreach, many of whom work all day before boarding the bus for the ESOL program, the rewards are worth the effort. People chat excitedly about the families they are getting to know. Children who began in the program in 2008 have now grown into teenagers able to help in the ministry, Striplin said.

“When we get on that bus (to return to Tallahassee), everybody is tired, but they’re just so energized because it’s been a fun evening,” she said. “It’s just a real blessing.”

At Tice, the outreach has yielded life-changing rewards for givers and receivers. By the measure of whether the church would be missed if its doors ever closed, Chapman said, "Our community would notice. Absolutely they would notice. It's changed us."

-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa. Susan Green is the managing editor of Florida Conference Connection.