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Immigrants learn English on job at Deseret Industries

An accountant, a doctor, an unskilled worker, a mechanic, a secretary, a medical technician. . . . On and on goes the list of refugees and other immigrants, a wave of newcomers who arrive speaking one or more of the world's languages - but not English.

Without English-language skills these new arrivals, from the well-educated to the illiterate, face a dismal future in the United States. Unable to read, write or speak English, they face minimum-wage jobs with no hope for advancement or benefits.By teaching English as a second language classes to trainees at Deseret Industries, the Church is taking positive and aggressive steps to help such newcomers move on to independent and successful living. So successful has been the effort that the Refugee Advisory Council of the Utah Department of Workforce Services presented an award recently to Deseret Industries, citing particularly its efforts in providing in-house instruction in English. The award recognizes employers who demonstrate exemplary performance in both welcoming and accommodating cultural diversity. (Deseret Industries helps develop self-reliance in needy individuals through work and training and by providing opportunities for giving and service. Many people who otherwise would be unemployed find job opportunities and training at Deseret Industries facilities.)

"All Deseret Industries units in the Salt Lake Valley currently offer in-house instruction in English," said Annette Golom, rehabilitation specialist for Deseret Industries. "The classes are taught by volunteers and are geared to all levels of need."

Douglas Roberts, rehabilitation manager for the Deseret Industries Sort Center, said that Salt Lake City has been designated by the U.S. State Department as an official resettlement site for refugees. In addition, Utah's strong economy attracts a lot of unskilled workers from out of state. Many of those unskilled workers don't speak or understand English very well.

"We have people from 24 countries, representative of 14 languages, here at the sort center," he said. "They speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Bosnian, Korean, Samoan, Tongan, Arabic and on down the list. It's quite a challenge, but our purpose is to teach them English so they can get better paying jobs with benefits. Unless they get over the language barrier, they're typically relegated to lower paying labor jobs. We've had an anesthesiologist, lawyers, engineers and other professional-level people who are doing entry level work because they don't have a grasp on English.

"Our hope is to get them into programs where they can get jobs in which they can use some of their skills, something at least related to their fields. We might not be able to help doctors from another country become doctors here, but perhaps we can help them get into some other area of medicine or at least get them to a level of language proficiency so they can enroll in medical school."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Brother Roberts said, are immigrants who are not literate in their native tongues. "It's hard to teach English to people who can't read or write in their own language," he said. "With them, we have to start from square one. We teach them literacy in their native language, then we teach them English.

"Out of 160 trainees at the sort center, about 120 come not speaking English. . . . Catholic Community Services has a grant as a refugee sponsoring agency; they refer a lot of people to us. We hope we can be effective in helping refugees - Latter-day Saints and others - adjust to a new country, new customs and a new language. It's a challenge, but it's very rewarding."

The need for offering English as a second language classes within the work setting is essential, said Barbara Fish, a professional educator who assists with the English-as-a-second-language program at the sort center. She noted that many of the people employed by Deseret Industries often work at one or two other jobs. Few would have time or transportation to attend classes before or after work.

"The commitment and support I see from management is phenomenal," she said. "They're committed to helping people and are willing to invest two hours a week of work time for trainees to learn English and skills that will help them become independent, so they can take care of their own lives and their families. If the non-English-speaking immigrants stay where they are, there's no hope of them getting anything but minimum wage. Language is the key to moving onward and upward. Empowering people to take charge of their own lives is the goal."

She said that what Deseret Industries is doing through these classes is getting or keeping people off welfare, saving tax dollars, reducing the burden on society and helping people get better jobs and have better lives.

The success of the English-as-a-second-language program at Deseret Industries hinges on volunteers. Some are called on Church service missions to teach, while others seek out the opportunity to teach on their own. "We ask for volunteers to come two afternoons a week to teach a class," Ms. Fish said. "They have to make a commitment to do this for at least one year. English must be their native language; they don't have to speak another language and they don't have to be teachers. We provide 18 hours of training."

Betty Petersen, a volunteer who has taught English as a second language nearly three years, said that the rewards far outweigh the challenges of helping immigrants adapt to a new life.

"I don't have a teaching background, except for what I taught in Church," said Sister Petersen, a member of the Winder 10th Ward, Salt Lake Winder Stake. "If people would get involved, they would find this very rewarding. I have fun doing it. People think they don't have time to volunteer for things like this, but they do. They just have to organize their time."

Sister Petersen has seen a wide range of abilities and talents among class participants. "Some of the people who come here are very sharp," she said. "Some speak four or more languages. The ages vary; some are in their early 20s while others are 40, 50 or older."

She said she enjoys seeing her "students" succeed. "Every now and then, one will call and tell me about a new job or a promotion," she said. "That really makes me happy. Sometimes I think that I'm tired, that I don't want to do this any more, and then someone will say, `Thank you, Teacher. You've really helped me.' Then I can hardly wait for the next class to begin. I tell all my friends that they ought to get involved in this."