TEACH helps immigrants navigate the COVID-19 era

Tutors adapt instruction so non-English speakers can keep learning

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By Jackie Pisano

Contributing Reporter

Health recommendations, government guidelines, travel restrictions and social anxieties have all made for navigating uncharted territory the past several months. 

But for area residents where English is a second language or have only called the U.S. home for a short time, trying to survive during these times has been, simply put, nerve-wracking.

That's where Tutoring English to Advance Change, or TEACH, comes in. 

Since 1993, the community based nonprofit run by the Catholic sisters of LaGrange Park's Congregation of St. Joseph has worked to provide free, one-on-one tutoring and cultural mentoring for immigrants and non-native English speakers in more than 40 communities throughout the western suburbs, providing access to developing English literacy in a friendly approach as a means to achieving life goals. 

TEACH, which is made up of 360 volunteer tutors ranging in age from 20 to 92, serves immigrants from more than 37 countries year-round. 

According to Constantine Bitsas, TEACH's executive director, 70 percent of students are native Spanish speakers, coming from all across Mexico, Central and South America. TEACH also has a sizable population of Lithuanian and Polish students and growing numbers of students originally from Asian and Middle Eastern countries. 

The majority of students come to TEACH through word of mouth and learning about TEACH through local churches, libraries and immigrant businesses, like ethnic grocery stores and restaurants.

While half of TEACH's tutors are retired teachers, many come to TEACH simply because they are open-minded individuals interested in helping others thrive in a new country. 

Tutors undergo a 12-hour training program and develop their own lesson plans, and students are then placed with specific tutors, where together they set personal goals to guide instruction and learn English relevant to their individual jobs and life circumstances. 

Prior to COVID-19, TEACH provided instruction in locations throughout the area, including at Brookfield's St. Barbara Church and the Brookfield Public Library, and other churches and libraries in Cicero, Berwyn and Summit.

But even when public spaces were mandated closed, TEACH didn't stop. Instead, it rededicated itself to empowering its students during these difficult times, with tutors moving to teaching via computer, phone and even snail mail.

"Tutors and students have decided which way they want tutoring, using Google Meet, Zoom, FaceTime, WhatsApp, phone calls, texting or mailing assignments to tutors and then taking on the phone with tutors," Bitsas said.  

During COVID-19, not only can information seem conflicting, but non-English sources of information are not always readily available. In addition, a high percentage of immigrants and non-English speakers also work in industries which are both deemed essential and have been the hardest hit, including hospitality, retail, industrial and food service jobs. 

"We try to do all tutoring in English because, ultimately, we want to empower students with the language so they can advocate for themselves," said Bitsas. "With COVID-19, who had ever heard of social distancing? I certainly didn't. So, when [the students] hear that, they don't really know what that means or understand all of the information that's out there, so we try to speak to them and teach them about the information in English as much as we can so they can then take that knowledge and use it."

Additionally, Bitsas says, most of TEACH's clients are also at high risk of COVID-19 exposure, due to multigenerational living arrangements — thus limiting social distancing — and residing in densely populated areas.  

"These folks may have a lot of unique needs because of the types of jobs they work, and they may be losing their jobs, don't have childcare, and struggling with utility costs," Bitsas said. "We want students to be able to speak with their children's teachers, communicate better at work, qualify for promotions or new jobs and sort through pertinent information."

With that in mind, TEACH has set up an open-ended survey for students to share what resources they are most in need of during this time, including healthcare, food and shelter, new employment and childcare.

TEACH has also organized virtual health literacy classes, providing a session on how to navigate COVID-19. 

While tutoring and immigrant services abound in Chicago, Bitsas says TEACH helps fill the gaps in the suburbs where immigrant resources are not as plentiful. 

"There are tons of resources in Chicago, but once you get across the city lines, there really is a huge dearth of services like what we do," he said. "So, what do people do who live in Brookfield? I think a critical piece of what we do is provide them with resources that nobody else is providing because [the resources] just aren't out here."

In addition to tutoring, TEACH has also helped inform local immigrant communities and small businesses of the various grants and financial opportunities available during this time, including unemployment and the CARES Act's Paycheck Protection Program. 

For more information about TEACH, including volunteer opportunities or becoming a student, visit teachempowers.org or call 630-217-0396.

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