Tara and Gretchen work together seamlessly assembling a tray of coffee, tea, and baked goods for their weekly study session. It’s a Tuesday — their typical meeting day — and the two women are bustling around Tara’s kitchen, gathering up cups, saucers, plates, serving trays, and utensils so they can share a fresh red velvet cake that Tara baked earlier in the day. They make gestures and use body language and eye contact to communicate who is in charge of what, barely needing words to get their points across. It’s the sort of bond you’d expect, not between a student and a teacher who do not share a common language, but between lifelong friends or family members — which is exactly how Tara and Gretchen see one another.
“Yes, I’m her teacher, and I’m happy to teach her because she works hard, but she has given me so much too,” Gretchen says. “We have so much in common…Our foods are similar; plants and trees and climate are similar. I had no idea. You think, ‘What does someone from Iran and someone from here have in common?’”
Tara sums up Gretchen’s words succinctly.
“I think I’ll name it ‘sisters.’”
The bond between Tara and Gretchen is the backbone of the Immigrant Home English Learning Program, or IHELP, the St. Louis-based non-profit organization that brought the two women together roughly three years ago. Though nominally IHELP’s mission is to provide one-on-one, in-home English language tutoring to immigrant adults and children in grades K-5, the organization equally sees itself as a cultural exchange and community-building opportunity, whereby students and teachers form a meaningful connection that enriches both of their lives.
Each year, IHELP pairs roughly 300 students like Tara with teachers like Gretchen, giving those who wish to learn English the tools they need to get to where they want to be — and giving both students and teachers the lifelong bonds forged throughout the program.
Julie Fox, IHELP’s executive director, sees these deep connections formed between students and teachers as a natural outgrowth of the program’s one-on-one approach — something originally conceived of as a way to remove the barriers to traditional English language learning programs offered in the St. Louis region.
Founded in 1995 by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, IHELP initially sought to assist the sizable population of recent immigrants from Vietnam, in particular the women, who wanted to learn English but often could not get to classes because they either lacked transportation or had small children at home but no childcare assistance.
“The goal of the program is to serve those who have barriers to traditional educational opportunities,” Fox says. “Many have children under five who aren’t in preschool, so they are homebound, and many others face barriers because of transportation. A lot of our students don’t have driver’s licenses, let alone access to childcare. Those barriers are really what the program looked to address by saying, ‘OK, how can we help these people who want to learn English when there are many things preventing them from doing so?’”
Over the years, IHELP has grown to become a significant part of the area’s immigrant service provider community and now consists of both the original adult English language program, as well as a youth-focused curriculum that caters to children who are in kindergarten through fifth grade. Although the School Sisters of Notre Dame no longer run the program, IHELP remains true to that original mission of meeting people where they are so that they can feel empowered through language.
As Lizzie Warner, IHELP program director, notes, this can be achieved by something as simple as feeling confident enough to have everyday interactions that native English speakers might take for granted.
“People really feel that there is a shame factor when they can’t do things for themselves,” Warner says. “So many of our students had full careers, graduated from college and have professional degrees, and their lives are so different here. When they can’t do basic things for themselves, there is a lack of confidence that seeps into every area of life. The goal is to build up that strength, resilience, and confidence.”
Both Fox and Warner point to daily tasks — like going to the grocery store, interacting with their children’s teachers, or going to a doctor’s appointment — as sources of immense stress for their students. These might seem like small interactions, yet without basic English skills, they can be intimidating events. Oftentimes, Fox and Warner note, folks are forced to rely on either translators who they must take at their word, or their own children, who they are uncomfortable burdening with such a responsibility.
Tara faced such a situation when, prior to entering IHELP’s program, she was diagnosed with cancer and found herself facing a terrifying health crisis and a healthcare system that operated in an unfamiliar language.
“It was really hard to not speak (English) when I got sick,” Tara says. “Sometimes, you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone and speaking through someone else. You want to express your own feelings in your own language.”
Although she couldn’t communicate with her doctors in the way any patient would desire, Tara only has glowing things to say about the care she received at Mercy Hospital in the St. Louis area. When asked what St. Louis means to her, she confidently asserts that it “gave me my health and my cure.”
Before her diagnosis, Tara was actively seeking help learning English, having joined the wait list for an IHELP tutor. She spent three years on that wait list, as the demand for volunteer tutors is great, before she was finally paired with Gretchen. Less than two years later, she not only developed the English language skills she needed to feel empowered to go about her daily life, but she has also become a citizen, has a good job and is now preparing to get her driver’s license, all of which she credits Gretchen and IHELP with helping her achieve.
Ebithal Al-Alwi, IHELP’s adult program manager, believes that one of the keys to students’ success — whether that means developing enough English language skills to go to a parent-teacher conference on their own, or becoming a U.S. citizen — is that IHELP is more than just a language education program. In addition to tutoring services, IHELP has a trove of resources to help its students in all aspects of their lives, and even has a social worker whose mission is to make sure they feel supported so that they can stay in the program.
“We try to support our students with books, resources, and information, and we also have a social worker so that they can ask us for anything they need and we can provide resources,” Al-Alwi says. “We hope we can provide the help they need, and sometimes information is the only thing they need. Whether they need help with their kids’ school, applying for a job or health support, we have the resources to give them the information.”
In the rare instances where IHELP itself cannot provide resources or information to its students, it works with fellow members of the Immigrant Service Providers Network (ISPN), with the shared goal of uplifting new members of the St. Louis community. The St. Louis-based ISPN consists of a group of providers that come together for monthly meetings and host regular committees to increase collaboration, educate, and facilitate collective impact in the metro area.
Fox is proud of the collaborative way in which these organizations operate and sees this network as a testament to St. Louis’ commitment to helping those who have chosen to make the metro area their new home.
“I think St. Louis is a great place where immigrants can thrive,” Fox says. “I think our immigrant service providers see how immigrants can help our community, and we want to help them too. Nobody comes to America because they think it’s easy; that’s insane. People come here because they want a better life and are living in conditions we can’t even imagine. All of us want to see everybody thrive, and we are all working to do that.”
But it’s not just the service providers that make St. Louis a place where immigrants can thrive. Warner points to Tara’s success as a testament to both her own hard work and resilience and to the commitment of volunteers like Gretchen, who are intentional about helping to create a welcoming place for their new neighbors with the understanding that doing so enriches the lives of everyone involved.
“I think our volunteer base is a wonderful example of how many welcoming, curious, open-minded people there are here in St. Louis,” Warner says. “St. Louis has a goal of being a really welcoming community. People see how important it is to have the immigrant perspective in the area. Some say there’s an economic gain to be had, which is true and great, but the restaurants and festivals and cultural events we all get to experience because of our immigrant population opens people’s minds and gives them exposure to different things. It’s so important for all of us to be learning, growing, and meeting people from different cultures.”