An Interview with an English Language Volunteer
Below is an interview with Barb Olker, a long-time volunteer with our English Language Learning program.
How long have you been volunteering with World Relief Chicagoland, and specifically with English Language Learning classes?
My husband and I have been doing this since the 90’s. It’s been a long time! He helps with being a friendship partner. He goes to visit new families and really just befriends them, helping out with whatever they might need to get used to living in a new country. After I retired in 2012, there was an open house at College Church in Wheaton spotlighting the English Learning program that World Relief offers. I was SO impressed with the program that I signed up to volunteer.
How has your faith been a part of your volunteer journey?
Back in the 90’s I was trained as a teacher. However, God always has a plan. I “fell” into a job as a library aid – He opened all sorts of opportunities. A few months after I took this position, there was a student from Vietnam who spoke no English and was illiterate in his own language. So, the teachers gave him to me! He and I would meet and over time, he was able to start speaking to me and with me, even though I had no idea what I was doing! As the years passed, he still reached out to me, even all the way through high school.
So, early on, God puts things in your path – He opens and closes doors. I’m not really good at evangelizing, if you want to use that word. I like to think that I try to live by example. I want to include immigrants in my daily life. Some of them are my better friends. I don’t think I could do that without a faith in God.
What is it like to volunteer?
I began to do ESL over the years in the school. Back then English Language Learning was not as much a provided service as it is today, but my school sent me to some workshops. When I began to volunteer with World Relief, I got trained and ended up with Krista who worked with students who were advanced level. Then Covid happened, and things switched over to zoom. I began to work with Justine in the beginner classes and am still with her now.
I’m fascinated each time I volunteer. Coming from a teaching perspective, to see how Justine can get them to understand what she is talking about – even on Zoom! She is so good at repetition. This is something I can learn from!
I never know what will happen when the “school year” starts. When we go into a breakout room, my job is to practice English with the students, and so I keep my list of questions handy each week. But with the people that I’ve talked to over time, we just start talking about what life was like in their country and their family and who have they left behind. You start to hear some of the sadness and difficulties they have gone through – it’s not a piece of cake for them.
Do you have a favorite story from all these years?
There was a woman that I got to be friends with in Krista’s class when we were in person. My husband often drives around and checks out what people are throwing out – bicycles, furniture, whatever! Well, this woman and I were meeting, and I found out that her kids needed bicycles. And we just so happened (again God’s plan!) to have bicycles that were the RIGHT size for her kids. So, we took them to her. The kids were so grateful and thrilled! Even now, years later, we still get together. You develop a real relationship.
What have been some of the challenges you have seen participants in the class have to overcome?
I found out on zoom that a woman I was working with had a major physical disability. Then they share the stories about their families that are still back there, and how they are trying to get over here. The lengths they have gone through to make it here. How hard it is and how much it costs and all the visas – these kind of things, they just stay with you.
You do more than just ESL in these classes!
How would you respond to someone that says, “Well, they should just learn English!”?
Yeah, I had a friend like that. She was “anti-immigrant/refugee” and would say things to me like, “They are ruining the school system and not paying their taxes.” I let her know that is not true. But honestly, I have to stay on top of these things myself to know that immigrants and refugees are not a drain on our society, they are an asset.
I don’t go out of my way to wave a refugee flag, but if someone is going to give refugees a hard time in their speech, I will counteract that.
Any last words of advice?
Try to give them hope. They are here. They are starting to feel safer, depending on where they came from. Hopefully, they feel safer, and have hope for their future. If they learn English, they can get a better job and better themselves and their families. I know of a woman who wants to be a nurse and is taking the Healthcare Language class that World Relief offers next so she can pursue this dream.
She kept saying that she used to have no hope in her country because of how hard and scary her life was. Here she has hope. Hope is a big deal; it keeps you going.
To get involved as a volunteer, please apply here.