Imagine you have lost everything and try to think of what that might look like. You have lost your job, your home, your car and you’re on the streets. But you’d still have something that millions of people dream of. You are a citizen of the United States.
This week at the DeNeuville Learning Center, I met five amazing women who have that dream and are working to make it a reality. They left their homes and families for the chance at a better life. These women legally immigrated to the US and are hard at work learning English and studying to take their citizenship test.
DeNeuville’s goal is to “assist women of all backgrounds and cultures in learning the skills needed to make positive choices for themselves and their families.” I first learned of DeNeuville at a Give 365 event and had the chance to talk with their Executive Director, Sister Lakshmie Napagoda. When I visited this week, she was proud to tell me that their worthy programs received maximum funding from this community-based grants program. From what I saw, it’s definitely being put to good use.
When I first talked to Maria Ruiz about volunteering with her class, I noticed her beautiful accent and learned that she also immigrated to the U.S. and moved here from the Dominican Republic more than 20 years ago. I told her that I would love to volunteer, but confessed that I wasn’t sure how much I could help – I don’t know anything about the immigration process and I’m not bilingual. She said “you’re a native English speaker. That’s a big help to us!” On top of being a native English speaker, I tend to have very little “accent” at all – having been raised by parents from the Mid-west, my pronunciation tends to be crisp. I always just thought that was a lack of flair, but in this case it was a bonus. I had never considered that my lack of accent would be so valuable, but I realized that when you are trying to learn English, it’s tremendously helpful to learn it from a native English speaker. I would guess that makes you (my reader) a good candidate to volunteer at DeNeuville!
Earlier I mentioned the five women I met this week and I want to tell you about them. Kadija is from Sierra Leone, which is a small country in West Africa. In her country she didn’t have the chance to go to school or receive any formal education, so it’s amazing to watch as she carefully masters the English language. I met a woman named Laura from Mexico and she helped me understand the correct pronunciation: La-oo-ra. I learned that our pronunciation of Laura actually sounds like the Spanish word for parrot (loro) and she very politely explained that she’d rather not be called a parrot. Who could blame her? Aziza is from Ethiopia and shortened her name from Aziizzaa in order to make her transition easier. From her I learned that many Ethiopians speak Oromo and the Oromo alphabet has many similarities to English. Beatriz is from Mexico and was one of the quieter ones in the group. I learned that she has very little opportunity to practice her English – most of her opportunity to practice is with her daughter, but she rarely has the opportunity to talk to adults in English. Lizeth is also from Mexico and it’s clear that she is very determined to learn English. Most of the other women had been in the US for more than 10 years. Lizeth has only been here for two years and she is a quick learner. Each time I said a new word, I could see that she was carefully repeating it to herself and taking advantage of the rare opportunity to practice with a native English speaker.
Maria Ruiz was so encouraging and has done a wonderful job of creating a safe learning environment. When I was in school, I think my least favorite phrase to hear was “Sarah, come to the board.” Ugh! But in this class, the students quickly rose from their chairs to seize the chance to practice and improve. I was inspired by their determination and dedication to achieve something that most of us take for granted.
There are 100 questions and answers the students have to know in order to pass their citizenship test and I would wager that most of us would miss some of those questions. Maria handed me the stack of flashcards and asked me to quiz the class so they could hear the correct pronunciation. There was simple things that seemed to make a big difference – “did” is not pronounced “deed” (the “i” in Spanish makes a hard “e” sound). Few native speakers say “the” as “thee” even though that’s actually a proper pronunciation. As we went through the stack, I’d read off the front, they’d answer and I’d move to the next card. I asked “When was the Declaration of Independence signed?” and La-oo-ra answered quickly: July 4, 1776. Great! Next card “Who was the first president?” “Washington” they answered. Perfect. Next card. “When was the Constitution written?” Stop. I didn’t know the answer. 17…70 something? Wow – I should probably know that. There were several instances where I wasn’t exactly sure. I would imagine most Americans would have missed a least a few (but if I’m the only one don’t tell me!)
During the break, I told Maria that I had never mastered another language and she reminded me that it’s much easier to learn a new language when you’re immersed it in. Between that and what Beatriz said earlier about only practicing English with her daughter, that made me wonder: how often do these women get a chance to practice English? They can and do take advantage of the classes at DeNeuville – structured courses (meaning workbooks and lessons) focused on learning English and studying for the GED. When class resume, I asked whether they could practice English at home and they all slowly shook their heads no. I started to realize how isolated their communities are from the general population of Memphis. I was shocked to realize that in their neighborhoods there were no native English speakers and that it was difficult to find opportunities to learn the language of their new country. Simply curious, I asked another question: would you like to meet up here in the evenings just to talk and practice English? They looked at me wide-eyed for what felt like an eternity. Had I said something offensive? Was there a cultural norm I had violated? I realized that they were just stunned by the offer. “We would love that” they told me.
I’ve heard many people say that Memphis is a cultural void, but it’s not true. In three hours I learned more about Spanish and the Mexican cultural than I would have in a whole semester of school. I heard stories about Africa and the challenges of coming to America. Now I understood what Sister Lakshmie meant when she said “Volunteers tell us they receive more than they give.”
One more flashcard. Why did the colonists come to America? “For freedom” they answered. And Maria added: “Yes freedom – just like many of us.”
How to Help
- Volunteer 4 minutes of your time right now and watch their video.
- Teach a class. 75% of the teachers are volunteers and their teachers are critical! This is an ongoing commitment, but very rewarding! You’d be surprised how much you have to contribute! Check out their incredible list of classes.
- Babysit. DeNeuville offers babysitting services because many of their students have children and DeNeuville wants to make sure that it’s easy to students to come to class without worrying about finding childcare.
- Work in the office or at the front desk. This can be an ongoing commitment or you can fill in for their full time staff as needed.
- Help with grants and fundraising. I know Sister Lakshmie would love to have your help!
- As you read, there’s interest in starting a conversation group at DeNeuville in the evenings with native English speakers. It’s a great opportunity to learn about other cultures while also providing help with English. Let me know (email@example.com) if you’re interested! This would be a GREAT learning and volunteering opportunity for teenagers.
- Best of all, Sister Lakshmie wants to help you find the right place. If you can give three hours, that’s great! If you can teach a class, that’s great too! She and her team will match you with something that fits your interests. Email her at Lnap5902@bellsouth.net
- Every bit helps! It costs about $40 per student to provide materials for a GED course
- They’ll happily accept food donations, paper towels, baby formal, etc to distribute to their students.
- See if your corporation will match your donation
- Come to an event. Did you know the Color Run supported DeNeuville? Keep your eye out for other upcoming events.
If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thinking about helping is the first step!