English Center helps immigrants overcome language barrier




The English Center means more than just the new opportunities learning the language affords students.

“It’s like a family,” said

Marcia Kennedy of Cortland, who came to the United States six years ago from Brazil.

Kennedy, who worked for Swiss Airlines, knew some English when she came to this country after meeting her husband, an American, via the Internet.

Still, the difference between her English before she started classes at the center, housed in John Knox Church on Market Street, and three years later is “night and day,” she said.

Kennedy is one of 80 students from more than 30 countries learning English at the center.

The English Center started in 1986 after the former International Institute closed in the city. Leslie Kiske and Bobbi Grinstein, two teachers from the institute, didn’t want to see the program end, leaving students without an alternative. They secured space and founded the English Center. First it was housed in space inside of a company. It moved to two other churches before John Knox.

Students come into the center at all levels of English proficiency.

Most of the teachers aren’t bilingual. They rely on creativity to lead their students.

“You have to be very animated,” Kiske said.

“You have to be an actress,” added Grinstein.

To teach students the word for egg, for example, Grinstein clucks like a chicken and acts as if she’s laid one. To emphasize the importance of “S” in plurals and tenses, she’s drawn the letter on her forehead.

“We teach through immersion,” Kiske said. “In class, we speak only English.”

Students are permitted to converse in their native tongues during breaks, but the founders say students mingle despite their language differences.

The center is an affiliate of the city schools’ Adult Basic Literacy Education and also receives funding from the International Institute Fund of the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley.

It’s a passion for the two founders as well as for the teachers and office personnel who work there.

“We learn as much from them as they do from us,” Kiske said.

“More,” Grinstein added.

They learn about the culture of their students as well as their individual challenges and struggles. Students enrolled hail from Puerto Rico, France, Morocco, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Iran, China, Korea, Columbia, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Poland, Vietnam, Thailand and India. The center also offers a citizenship course.

Adam Hajbane moved to New York City from Morocco in February 2009. He learned some English there, but after about a year, he was chatting online with someone who told him about Youngstown and its low cost of living. He decided to move. He learned about the English Center from a friend and began taking classes.

Adam works overnight, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., at a gas station, goes home to sleep for an hour and comes to class at 9:30 a.m. three days per week.

Classes at the center run from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday from September through June. There is no charge to students.

Adelina Rodriguez, originally from Mexico, moved to the city with her husband about 10 years ago.

“It was hard because I have no relatives here, just my husband and my son,” she said.

Small tasks such as going to the grocery store were challenging without more of a grasp of the language. She began taking classes at the English Center about three years ago.

“I feel like my eyes have been opened,” Rodriguez said.

Yeni Cruz, a native of Honduras, started taking classes to broaden her job prospects. She works as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant and wouldn’t be able to communicate with customers if she didn’t speak English.

Jenne Bruner came to Warren from Russia in 2003 when she married a man from that city. She enrolled at the center about five years ago. Improving her English skills has helped her fit in.

“I can talk to people. I can read the paper, watch television,” Bruner said. “I feel safer because my English has improved.”

Kennedy, the Cortland resident from Brazil, wants to continue studying English at Youngstown State University. She said the skills she’s learned at the center have been invaluable.

“It’s freedom,” Kennedy said.

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