What communication is really about

This story appears in the Notes from the Field feature series. View the full series.

by Janie Rosko

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Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our sixth round of bloggers: Natalia Liviero is a volunteer with VIDES+USA serving in the Middle East, and Janie Rosko is a Humility of Mary volunteer serving within the Ursuline Ministries in Youngstown, Ohio. This is Janie's final blog post.


Serving within the Immigrant Outreach Program at Beatitude House in Youngstown has been exceptionally meaningful. I have been able to watch some of the children grow over the five years I have been here. Because of being an AmeriCorps member the past year and a half, I have gotten to know many of the mothers within this program, as well.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, we help adults improve their English-language skills. Some of the women we work with have been coming to Beatitude House for over eight years, and others have only been with us for a few months. We try to take on life day by day in class while also looking to the future and appreciating the past by listening to and respecting each person's story.

Working with the people here is humbling. Each volunteer is usually working one-on-one or with a small group of women. We hold numerous conversations with the women to help them gain confidence in their speaking. Although we tend to discuss simple, everyday matters, we learn about how each person has been shaped by her own life experience.

Three women I frequently work with are Aracely, Ping and Mariseli. Aracely is from Guatemala, Ping is from China, and Mariseli is from Puerto Rico. Mariseli is an American citizen, of course, but she comes to class to improve her English for her job. She and several other people within the program work at the Antonine Village, an assisted-living facility in North Jackson, Ohio.

Most of the women work in nursing homes or restaurants or provide child care. Some of their life situations are similar, but they do not all share the same story. Some have discussed how they have been harassed at restaurants or convenience stores because of their occasional difficulties with English. Even though we have come far as a society, there is a long way to go.

Some students discuss differences between their communities in their first country of residence versus in the continental United States. Some of the students lived in other states, including California, Florida and Virginia, for a period of time before they ended up in the Youngstown area. Youngstown has been expanding its use of local and farmers markets, including the Youngstown Flea. However, Aracely remembers markets being easier to access in Guatemala because of the country's more compact infrastructure.

Because of work, Mariseli missed a few weeks of classes recently, but I have still been spending Tuesday and Thursday mornings with Ping and Aracely. Ping has only been coming to class for the past few months, but she and Aracely have already developed a friendship.

Most of the students who come for English Language Learning have Spanish as their first language; however, there are two students whose first language is Arabic, and Ping's first language is Chinese.

Sr. Norma Raupple, the director of the Immigrant Outreach Program, can fluently speak Spanish, and a few of the volunteers, including me, can understand and respond to it to a small degree. However, there are currently no other Arabic speakers besides the students. The two students who speak Arabic have built a stable English language foundation, but they continue to work on their studies.

There is one volunteer, Joel, who is fluent in Chinese. Typically, Ping works with Joel for a while before joining my group. This means I usually have time to work one-on-one with Aracely.

Recently, another volunteer, Yvonne, was having a conversation with Aracely and me. I asked Aracely to retell a story she told me a while back. It was a memory from when she was a child in Guatemala: She had climbed up a mango tree, trying to get pieces of fruit. She heard her mother calling her name but was focused on getting mangoes. Eventually, her mother found her, and she had to climb down from the tree.

Although that is a simple memory, she told her story well. Sharing memories helps the students connect with one another and volunteers. Of course, we, the volunteers, also share our stories so the students can learn about our lives. It is interesting to learn how different people navigate through their time in the world.

Ping has visited other countries besides the United States, including Mexico. She discussed how she and her husband would communicate to others as they traveled. Thanks to technology, they were able to conveniently rely upon translation apps; however, she mentioned that sometimes, her phone would not load in a reasonable amount of time, so communication difficulties did arise.

Although Ping does have her cellphone during class, she tries to use it as a last resort when it comes to learning a new word or phrase. Aracely and other Spanish-speaking students try to explain concepts to Ping using English, and their teaching is beneficial for everyone involved. The students who explain are able to reinforce what they already know, and the other person is able to gain new information. Of course, other volunteers and I are always readily available to help, but we do strive to give the students a decent amount of time to teach or correct one another.

It is essential to factor in the cultural roots of each student, yet we must make sure to heavily take their individual lives into consideration when working with them. We want to help them communicate effectively and confidently in their everyday lives while also building community among all students and volunteers within the program.

[Janie Rosko is a Humility of Mary volunteer serving within the Ursuline ministries in Youngstown, Ohio.]