Longtime educator Sister Mary Lapping says the best things about her current ministry tutoring immigrant and refugee women are the opportunity to work with people on a one-to-one basis and to see what it’s like to be in their shoes. As a volunteer English teacher for the Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Program, she has been doing both for the past five years.
“The first thing is to establish a relationship,” says Sister Mary, whose first student was a Palestinian woman and now is tutoring two women from Afghanistan. “Once you’ve done that, you’re like one of the family. They completely trust you.”
For Sister Mary, establishing that trust is central to helping women who come to the United States with little or nothing, from unknown but unquestionably difficult circumstances, struggling to communicate in a new country where everyday life continually presents new challenges.
She says most students in the program speak a little English but are eager to learn more so they can communicate with their neighbors, doctors, their children’s teachers, and other people who are important to their daily lives.
Her role as an English tutor encompasses much more than teaching a new language. The lessons also take on a very practical form, helping the women learn to navigate the everyday occurrences, customs and culture of life in the United States.
“We work on everything from what to say when you call to make a medical appointment and how to fill out an application to going to a doctor without a translator and beginning to use a computer,” she says. On a recent visit, Sister Mary was teaching her student about telephone scams and practicing how to avoid being a victim.
Operating since 1995, the Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Program is responsible for over 600 students from more than 50 countries having learned English and achieved goals that include helping their children in school, getting a job, and earning citizenship. Tutors give one-hour lessons twice a week in the student’s home. They are paired based on the days and times each is available.
After years of preparing lesson plans, Sister Mary readily admits she appreciates the support the program provides. “They give you all the materials you need to teach and extra resources that may be needed to meet your student’s individual needs.”
There is no set length of time for a student-tutor relationship. Students can receive tutoring as long as they need it, and Sister Mary enjoys building and maintaining relationships with the immigrant and refugee women she serves. “It’s one more way that I, as an Ursuline, can be present to someone in need.”