Shirley Kocher was lively and smiled often as she worked with her three students.
At one point, Kocher directed a question to Gloria Pech and was clearly thrilled when her pupil responded with a three-word sentence:
“Yes, I can.”
Kocher was among volunteer tutors helping people in the English Language Learners program at the Common Ground building of Salem Lutheran Church.
Area residents who want to learn English — or improve their English-speaking skills — are invited to attend sessions from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.
The sessions, which are free and open to the public, take place in the Common Ground building and inside the church. Free childcare is available.
Pat Ludeke and Barbara Fanning are committee members for the Adult ELL program at the Fremont church. Rahtaya Young is a Midland University work study student, who handles a variety of administrative duties.
Together, the women oversee the program, which has a lengthy history. Some longtime tutors say the ELL program was founded 30 years ago and first hosted at a local Methodist church. It later took place for 11 years at Washington Elementary School.
“There was a need to have it moved and I asked if our church would want to take that over,” Ludeke said.
So the program began last year at the church.
Numbers of English Language Learners have varied.
“We’ve had a total of 50 that have come at some point,” said Young, who’s been with the program three years.
But about 22 students come each week.
“We’ve learned over the years that our participants come when they can — not every week. So we have different learners every time,” Ludeke said.
Some ELL students may not be able to attend each week due to job schedule conflicts, weather or other factors.
Ludeke cited two things that make the program work: community tutor volunteers and Midland’s work study programs, which provide paid tutors and child care providers.
She said people can start in the ELL program at any time, which begins after Labor Day in September and runs the course of the school year.
The ELL sessions typically don’t take place when Fremont Public Schools or Midland aren’t classes.
Ludeke, a special education teacher at Washington, sees the ELL classes as a way to bridge the community.
“Pat works at the school and she knows how much need there is for people to learn English,” Fanning added. “We believe God wants this church to be open to the needs of the community. We believe we’re here to serve the community.”
Learning English takes time.
“It takes seven years to fluently learn a language and when you think about adults and the busy lives they have with jobs and families I think that’s even extended longer,” Ludeke said. “But these are people who are wanting to communicate better with their children, with the people they work with — and in the community.
“A lot of them are trying or are in the process (of learning) and doing the best they can to learn.”
Currently, the program has about eight volunteers. It also has six Midland students from the university’s work study program.
Classes are divided into different levels of learning — beginners and intermediate. Some intermediate learners can speak English, but want to learn to write it, too.
The tutors may have three to five students. Some may tutor on a one-on-one basis — depending on where the individual is in language skills.
Tutors enjoy their classes.
“You look forward to coming,” said Young, who teaches a beginners’ class. “Everybody’s happy to be there and make new friends. Because we don’t know Spanish and they don’t know English, we’re kind of all on the same page.”
How do you teach someone if you don’t know their language?
“You point. Use pictures,” Ludeke said. “You talk about family first, because everybody has a family. You talk about shopping.”
Fanning added: “You want to make sure if they’re in an accident, they know 911 and telephone numbers.”
Some tutors know Spanish.
“You kind of learn Spanish, too, as you’re teaching them English,” Young said.
Ludeke noted, however, that ELL classes don’t only include people whose first language is Spanish.
They’ve had learners from Korea and Turkey and some indigenous people from mountainous areas of Guatemala speak K’iche — not Spanish.
“All languages are welcome,” Ludeke said.
Besides teaching the language, program coordinators try to integrate celebrations into classes.
“Many didn’t know the Thanksgiving story,” Ludeke said.
So Young developed a bingo came to help students learn vocabulary.
They served pumpkin bars and gave away fall-themed prizes for the bingo.
All the classes — and the children — came together for the celebration.
“Everyone had a good time,” Fanning said.
Throughout the years, tutors and organizers have formed bonds with students and learned a little about their lives.
Fanning cites one ELL student who wants to become a police officer. The man does interpreting and works with officers in South Omaha. He’s taking a class on grammar at Metropolitan Community College and comes to the ELL class at Salem.
“They come here for more practice and feel safe practicing here,” Ludeke said.
Fanning agreed, adding, “They’re learning and not having to take tests.”
“They learn at their own level,” Ludeke said.
That could be seen in the Common Ground building where groups of students were divided among tutors.
Kocher enthusiastically encouraged her three students at one table.
Nearby, Midland University students Luisa Soto and Mireya Chavez worked to help three young men improve their English skills.
For Soto, the conversation had warmth and familiarity.
“I miss home and it reminds me of home,” said the freshman from Wide Oak, Texas. “My parents are Spanish-speakers. I like being able to hear Spanish because, at Midland, it’s not as common.”
Ludeke has empathy for people who want to learn to speak English.
“I’m very supportive and want people to realize that they’re just like my great-grandpa, who came over from Germany… and escaped famine and violence,” she said. “The reason why a lot of these families are coming here is to escape these awful drug cartels.
“They all have a story worth hearing.”