Universal language

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Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

Mercer Island is seldom, if ever, mentioned when discussing the current state of Washington’s non-English speaking workforce. Few Islanders face language communication problems on a daily basis. Across the lake, in central and south Seattle, is another story. English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are offered through community centers, private institutions, minority outreach organizations and schools in every neighborhood. Yet there are similar programs — albeit less visible — on Mercer Island.

Unbeknownst to many, the Island’s assisted living and senior housing facilities are brimming with employees who speak English as a second language. Covenant Shores has more than 14 team members — from housekeepers to dietary aids — who speak a native tongue at home. Island House employs around 12 non-native English speakers and most of the caregivers at Sunrise Assisted Living have immigrated to America.

“Many of our care managers, housekeepers and kitchen staff are from eight to 10 countries in Africa, as well as the Philippines. There are a number of different native languages spoken,” said Stephen Greene, executive director of Sunrise Assisted Living.

As part of the company’s employee benefit plan, Sunrise funds ESL courses for any staff member that needs the education. The classes are usually held at a local community college, such as Seattle Central, Greene said. Right now, Sunrise has two care managers taking evening ESL courses.

Greene clarified, however, that all Sunrise employees have enough knowledge of English to engage with residents and uphold their job requirements.

“Sunrise has a policy — anyone we hire has to have English capability. They need to be able to read in-depth care plans, write a daily log and communicate with the residents,” Greene said. “But that doesn’t mean many of our team members wouldn’t benefit from continuing [English] education.”

In fact, administrators are currently looking to bring ESL courses to Sunrise.

“We’re trying to work through Green River Community College to hire an ESL instructor for weekly classes,” Greene said, adding that the decision hinges on staff interest.

Island House, which runs under the Merrill Gardens parent company, also offers its employees funding for continued education. Yet there has “not been the need” for an organized Island House ESL course, according to general manager Amy Kennedy.

“They’re not struggling at all,” Kennedy said of Island House’s non-native English speakers. “If we did see a need, it would be something we’d address.”

Meanwhile, across the Island at Covenant Shores Retirement Home, residents and employees gather twice a week for afternoon ESL courses.

The idea was first proposed by Mercer Island Rotary Club member Bo Darling several years ago. Seeing the need, Rotary agreed to fund an eight-week English language program for the retirement home’s staff members. Last fall, Covenant Shores hired Hopelink, an organization that provides adult education as part of its mission, to teach the ESL course. The $1,000 donated by MI Rotary covered all program costs.

Response to the class, according to Hopelink teacher Marci Williams, has been “extraordinary.” So good, in fact, that Hopelink was invited back to teach a second course — also funded by MI Rotary — in the spring.

“It’s almost unheard of to hold a class two times,” Williams said, adding that the program’s vitality should be credited to the residents who stepped up as volunteers.

“My experience [at Covenant Shores] was different than any other place,” the certified English teacher said. “There was a lovely esprit de corps that developed between the residents and the students. They’re so wonderfully caring of each other.”

Covenant Shores resident Joyce Ostergren and housekeeper Magdalena Escobar, who moved to America from El Salvador, illustrate this bond perfectly. The two women have lived together at Covenant Shores for seven years now. Watching them laugh during a Reporter photo shoot, you would think the two had been friends since childhood.

“She’s the best,” Escobar said, turning to Ostergren with a big smile. “A very good teacher.”

Ostergren, who spent years tutoring while her children were in school, reflected the attention.

“I just really enjoy doing this,” she said. “It’s created such close ties. It’s wonderful to meet our employees and learn about the countries they’re from.”

These ties, Ostergren added, go beyond the classroom. They are found in the dinning hall, sharing a joke over breakfast. In the hallways, helping an employee translate the name of a cleaning product. Or on the lobby sofa, telling stories about family, children and grandchildren.

“Before, it’s difficult for me to communicate. Now I understand more. I speak. I write. She helps me,” said Escobar, giving her tutor a big hug.

The El Salvadorian has lived in America for more than 10 years. In all this time, Covenant Shores is the first employer to offer her subsidized ESL courses, she said.

“I’m very happy. I keep my fingers like this,” she said, showing two hands with crossed fingers, “hoping to learn next year.”

Escobar is not alone in this wish. The resident tutors of Covenant Shores were so impressed by last year’s classes, they have offered to fund a third ESL course for fall.

Commenting on the proposal, Williams struggled to express her feelings .

“I’m absolutely blown away by this,” the teacher said. “Residents are digging into their own pockets to keep the program going. I think its extraordinary.”

Having taught English to foreigners for years, Williams emphasized the invaluable difference these classes make in her students lives.

“There’s not a more appreciative student in the world than an adult ESL learner because every day, whether shopping or at work, they see the need for English,” she said.

On June 18, Williams gathered with her students and tutors, their friends, family and fellow Covenant Shore residents for an end-of-course graduation celebration. Each ESL student was recognized with a certificate for passing the 10-week spring course. Many of the students spoke before the crowd, eager to use their newly crafted English skills. They expressed thanks. They shared humorous class memories. And they beamed.

Although Covenant Shores administrators have not officially approved the continuation of an ESL program next year, Williams is quite certain there will be no dissent.

“We’ll start again in the fall,” she said. “We’ve got such a solid group. And I’m sure they’ll all be back.”

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