International community members now have the chance to not only learn English, but to receive a mentor to help them integrate into American life.
The Old School Community Center, a non-profit organization for language and cultural services, has offered English classes to foreign community members for six years. Since May, the center launched a mentor program to help citizens with daily routines such as doctor visits and paying bills.
The center is located in the former Carbondale Community High School building.
Elsie Farough, director of social services for the organization, said the program provides mentors for the underserved populations in Jackson County and surrounding areas.
Dee Casper, director of The Old School, said after a member registers for the program, the process begins by a visit with the social services director. The director asks questions such as why the person came to America, where he or she wants to be in a year and what sort of medical, clothing or food needs he or she may have. The member then sees a nurse from the organization to talk about issues that may need attention by a doctor.
Casper said many of the issues that foreigners to America face are because of language barriers. For example, if a member needs to visit a doctor, the member may not believe there is available transportation or have no way to interpret what the doctor tells them.
Deborah Gates-Burklow, president of The Old School, said one example includes a woman that had just been told she had diabetes. She didn’t know what the disease was and had not sought out treatment for it. Gates-Burklow said the organization helped her receive treatment and she’s now learning English.
Once assigned to a mentor, Casper said, the members are given information about public transportation and also provided an interpreter to attend the appointments with them.
“We’re trying to help people who have the initiative to help themselves and to excel and do something more with their lives,” said Lili Angel, manager of the mentor program and language and cultural services.
When a person has a health problem, she said, the mentor explains that they need a diet of 2,000 calories a day. Sometimes the member doesn’t know how to count calories, though.
“They’ll ask what a calorie is,” Angel said. “They want to know, and that’s the people we want to help.”
Angel said another issue is when foreigners use their children to translate for them. She said a lot of times the kids speak better English than their parents’ native language, so they can’t interpret as well, or they even omit information they think their parents wouldn’t want to hear.
Herman Rincon, a mentor for The Old School, said when he came to America, he realized it was in need of philanthropic services, too.
“Suffering is happening all over the world, no matter where you go,” he said.
Rincon began at The Old School as a volunteer before he became an employee. He said it’s his responsibility to help the members meet their goals, sometimes long-term and sometimes short, set by the social services director. An example of a short-term goal includes when a person receives an infraction letter from the city because of housing regulations. Rincon said he helps to translate the letter and meet the regulations.
Once a task is completed, though, Rincon said, he tells the members not to hesitate to come back for help with something else.
“(Mentors) are going to inspire them to achieve these goals,” Casper said.
However, it’s important the mentor doesn’t get too close to his or her client, Rincon said.
“We try not to build close relationships because … they may end up seeing you not as a professional but as a friend,” he said.
Casper said most of the population that gets help through The Old School is Hispanic, but other languages are offered by supply and demand. He said Cobden has services for migrant workers and Our Savior Lutheran Church helps out with the Chinese community. There are Muslim centers as well, but there are still language groups that fall through the cracks, he said.
“We want to fill that void,” Casper said.
Often, community members complain that a foreigner to America needs to learn English and help themselves get integrated, but Casper said it’s not that easy.
“They don’t know the resources exist to equip them in that area and they feel isolated,” he said. “We’re not empowering people to stay in the current condition. We’re encouraging them and equipping them to learn English and contribute to society. It’s a lack of opportunity, not a lack of drive.”