Giving Thought: Building community through English skills

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

For 22 years, English in Action has helped non-English-speaking adults in the Roaring Fork Valley learn the language of their adopted country. Today we’re speaking with Executive Director Lara Beaulieu about the singular way that her organization bridges the valley’s cultural divide.

Lara has held her position since 2008. Before that, she worked for New York City Outward Bound, where, among other things, she helped young people who were behind in their reading and writing. That experience fit well with English in Action, where she leads a paid staff of five and hundreds of volunteers who teach adults to speak, read and write English.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please introduce us to English in Action and how its grown or changed over the years.

Lara Beaulieu: We began as an initiative of the Basalt Library, then called the Adult Literacy Program. The immigrant population was increasing and the library really wanted to include all the people in our community. Under the leadership of Julie Fox-Rubin, the program spun off from the library to become English in Action in 2005. We established our home office in El Jebel and we now serve people from Carbondale to Aspen.

The primary program when we started was one-on-one tutoring, in which a tutor and student would meet a minimum of one hour per week. That continues to be our most significant service. Before 2005, we had about 60 tutoring pairs per year. When I started in 2008, we were at about 100 tutoring pairs. Since then, we’ve added drop-in conversation sessions on Thursday evenings, small-group tutoring and periodic workshops that help people develop a plan to learn English. So, last year we served 290 adult immigrants with the help of around 180 volunteers. We’ve nearly tripled the number of people we served in 2008.

ACF: Volunteer tutors are key to your mission. Explain why this is so important.

LB: Volunteer tutors have always been central to our program. We don’t provide large group classes; we offer something different. By using volunteer tutors, we’re able to be extremely cost-effective, while giving students an individualized program. We can work with complete beginners to advanced students who want to get their citizenship, get a GED or pass an exam for a professional license. Learning English is the starting point of these relationships, but we hope that our students and tutors also develop friendships. We live in a community that can be divided and the opportunity to meet and connect with somebody who’s had a very different life experience is invaluable — and fun.

We are truly a community-based organization, and one of the ways we demonstrate that is the Fiesta de Tamales. It’s a fundraiser, but it also brings community members together from all walks of life around homemade tamales and pupusas. It’s a truly cross-cultural event that everybody can take part in and enjoy.

ACF: How do you measure your performance?

LB: There are a number of ways. We test our students when they enter our program and after they’ve completed a year in our program. Around 90 percent show measurable improvement in their language skills. We also ask whether students feel more confident in themselves, and the majority report changes in that respect, too. A portion of our students tell us they’ve really changed their life conditions — getting their citizenship, getting a better job, moving to a better living situation. Sometimes the changes are less tangible — for example, we hear from mothers who say their kids used to tell secrets in English, but the kids can no longer do that, so the mothers feel empowered.

Also, about 80 percent of our tutors tell us they develop substantially more knowledge of the immigrant experience as a result of being a volunteer. We really believe those tutor-student relationships create a more compassionate discourse in our community. When two people connect, spend time in each other’s homes and share each other’s challenges, they can’t help but have greater compassion for each other.

ACF: Are there changes on the horizon?

LB: For the last several years we’ve had 100 people on our waiting list, and some people in the midvalley have waited up to two years for a tutor. So we launched a tutor drive last year and recruited about 90 tutors. After the election, in particular, there was an immediate surge in interest. Those folks told us they wanted to contribute positively to the community. Our next training will be 5:30 to 8 p.m. on Feb. 15 at the Pitkin County Library. People can contact us at 970-963-9200 or info@english for more information or to RSVP.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.