Esperanza Center provides English language services to immigrants

Volunteer Louise Menta helps Ecuador native Juan Azogeu read the newspaper.  Helping immigrants understand the English language is just one of the four programs available at the Esperanza center located in Fells Point. (Photo taken by Asia Hinton/ Nov 9, 2011)

Volunteer Louise Menta helps Ecuador native Juan Azogeu read the newspaper. Helping immigrants understand the English language is just one of the four programs available at the Esperanza center located in Fells Point. (Photo taken by Asia Hinton/ Nov 09, 2011)

The name implies hope, but individuals at the Esperanza Center receive much more than that.

Located in Fells Point in southwest Baltimore, the Esperanza Center helps new immigrants in the community by providing community services, immigration legal services, medical care and English comprehension classes.

Evelyn Rosario has been a volunteer administrator for the program for 15 years, and her goal is to make the immigrant integration process run smoothly for individuals entering Baltimore.

“What we do here is basically servicing and aiding a human being who has needs for basic resources,” Rosario said. “People come to us and most often they don’t know what they need or how to go about it, so we help them figure out the first steps they need to take in order to establish themselves.”

The center is a part of the Catholic Charities program and is just one of many ways that nonprofit organizations in Baltimore City assist Baltimore residents for free or reduced cost, providing them with basic needs that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

The program is run entirely by volunteer workers with 13 staff members and one on-salary employee.

In order to find volunteers for the program, volunteer coordinator Francisco Plasencia attends about 15 university and internship fairs throughout the year as well as having connections with Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Last fiscal year; beginning July 2010 through June 2011, the center received a combined total of 455 volunteers for their four programs. In that year the center also had 15 volunteer doctors, nurses and attorneys who serve the immigrants.

Although volunteer participation is high, Plasencia says he would love to see more student interns and retired skilled professionals.

“My vision is to have volunteers who share our mission and try to broadcast that vision into the community,” Plasencia said. “More than volunteers I am looking for ambassadors.”

Of the four services the center offers, English as a second language is their biggest and most popular program.

Juan Azogeu, 24, is a native of Ecuador, but has been living in the United States for four years. Azogeu has been attending the ESL program for three years and is one of the centers best English-speaking students.

“My friends told me there’s a place where you can learn English and it’s free,” Azogeu said. “I learn [about] English, American culture and politics, and now I tell many friends about the program. I love this program a lot.”

Azogeu is one of the centers biggest accomplishments. He is currently in the high intermediate class and occasionally plays the role of the teacher, when helping other students.

Louise Menta is an American who has been volunteering at the center for three years. As Azogeu’s teacher, she hopes that he and the rest of her students gain improved English skills at a level that they can achieve.

“I don’t plan lesson plans,” Menta said. “I just ask [students] are there particular things that they want to work on. It could range from the Oxford Picture Dictionary where everything has English and Spanish equivalents, to other workbooks which gradually move through vocabulary and verb tenses.”

Many of the ESL classes have a 1-1 or 1-3 teacher to student ratio. Students are able to choose between formal and informal classes, and for $20 a semester students can attend unlimited classes for 12 weeks.

Diane Sieme is the ESL program coordinator and is the only paid employee. Her goal is for the teachers to connect with their students and for all of the students to test into intermediate classes.

“I have a maximum of three students per class, because it’s just not effective for a volunteer teacher to teach more than that,” Sieme said. “I have a protocol where if we don’t have enough teachers I give preference to the beginners. I set this up to make it a successful program, which demonstrates student progress because I keep the groups low.”

If needed, Sieme also uses 21 laptops and ESL video programs if she is ever short of volunteers.

The center not only helps immigrants adapt to a new lifestyle, it also serves as a life changing experience for its volunteers.

“I find the students here inspiring,” Menta said. “Many of them are up against many difficult circumstances, but they are resilient and psychologically strong. I think we need more immigrants not fewer.”

Although this is his third year and he is in the highest class level, Azogeu has no intentions of leaving the program. He says he is appreciative of the center and everything he has learned.

“All the volunteers here have a lot of patience and a big heart,” Azogeu said. “What I know about English is from this program, and I want to say thank you to the center and the volunteers for helping immigrants like me.”

Throughout the year the center has helped 9,456 immigrants within its four programs, not only providing them communications skills, but confidence and motivation to better themselves, in order to build a stronger community.

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