Pantry volunteers give food for thought

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Every Saturday, hungry people file in to the Micah 6 Food Pantry and sit and wait for their food. Others drift toward the sign off to the side that says “clases de ingles gratis,” or free English classes.

Government and music junior Elisabeth Eikrem and English and Spanish junior Katy Eyberg began as volunteers handing out food at the Micah 6 Food Pantry, between 22nd and 23rd streets on San Antonio Street one year ago. After noticing that a majority of those who came for food were Hispanics who struggled with English, they took it upon themselves to teach them starting last fall.

“The first time, we just had to trust that they wouldn’t walk away,” Eikrem said about the fear that older clients wouldn’t listen to the younger college students when they started this past fall. “You can’t turn your back because someone doesn’t speak your language or because they’re at a food pantry.”

About six students, most of them Liberal Arts Honors students, volunteer for the Micah 6 ESL Project. They use a hands-on teaching approach, putting emphasis on basic phrases. For example, Eikrem and Eyberg teach students to say “I need a bus ticket” or “I need some water” rather than focusing on grammar. However, they recently began teaching writing skills because they felt it was invaluable and would provide more lesson variety.

“The goal is that by the end of the lesson, they will master that lesson,” Eikrem said. “There’s something about seeing my student gain that confidence and being able to have a conversation with them in English after, but you can’t change the world in two hours.”

After teaching three to four lessons, Eikrem was approached by volunteer Ana Salas-Porras. By chance, Salas-Porras noticed them teaching English and introduced herself as a retired ESL teacher of 20 years. She offered them her old teaching supplies and made suggestions for lesson plans they still use today.

“It was her way of passing on the flag to us,” Eikrem said. “She was so instrumental in helping with some lesson plans, and I still email her from time to time with a question.”

Those that do go to the classes feel a certain amount of comfort in the way they’re taught. The hierarchy of teaching has been diminished and the courses have a more personalized style, with Eyberg, Eikrem and the rest of the volunteers sitting rather than standing while teaching and talking with the students individually to avoid teaching above them.

“The whole idea was to make the people feel comfortable with speaking English and saying phrases they regularly wouldn’t feel comfortable saying,” Eyberg said. “Many are desperate to get English skills, and this is the only opportunity to get English skills for free.”

Even though Eyberg had previous experience teaching English at a public library in El Paso, Micah 6 is different because it’s less formal. The students change every week since their attendance is dependent on their need for food. While the lessons change, the premise stays the same.

As a member of the UTeach-Liberal Arts program, and with dreams set on becoming an English teacher and debate coach, Eyberg recognizes the importance of the English language and the significance of thinking critically.

Eikrem also knows what it’s like to be uncomfortable with speaking the native tongue. As a child, she lived in the Netherlands, where the native language is Dutch. She took three to four years of Dutch classes while living in the Netherlands to be able to speak it.

“I had always said I would never be a teacher, but I have a strong interest in speaking the language of the country,” Eikrem said. “I know what it’s like to walk down the streets and not know what people are saying to you.”

Eikrem, who doesn’t speak Spanish, noted the difficulty when trying to learn a new language and the frustration when she knows how to say something but can’t communicate it to her student. Yet, most of the time, she is able to transcend that wall and help the student begin to pick up the simple phrases.

From the beginning Eyberg, Eikrem and the rest of the volunteers have made it a point to show consideration for the students’ efforts at learning a new language. They refer to those they teach as students, not clients and try to build connections on a personal level.

“It’s a matter of respect. They’re not our charity case,” Eikrem said. “They’re choosing to learn, which I think is very admirable. I don’t think I would have the courage to learn English from a stranger.”


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