For many international and immigrant ESL students, the American tradition of volunteering is an elusive concept. Many immigrant students work long hours at survival jobs and feel they have no time to volunteer. Others who may have an interest in volunteering have no clue how to find a volunteer position.
Yet volunteering is a great way for adult ESL students to improve their English. It gives them an important opportunity to practice their English outside of class in an authentic setting. It helps them forge ties to the wider community in the United States and reduces the isolation many of them feel. And it serves as a major confidence booster, as students are able to draw on the strengths they brought with them to this country in order to help others.
For these reasons, I address the issue of volunteering in a variety of different ways in my classes. Here’s how:
One of the easiest ways for adult ESL students to volunteer is to make a quick mental inventory of their neighbors. Do they have an elderly English-speaking neighbor who is unable to drive to the supermarket or to various medical appointments? What simpler way to speak more English than to offer to take a house-bound neighbor food-shopping or to the doctor?
That is exactly what a shy student of mine from Colombia chose to do. She had a car, and found a woman in her 90s in her apartment building who needed a ride to the grocery store. My student set up a weekly date to take her elderly neighbor shopping. In exchange, the woman invited my student into her home, cooked her dinner, and cut out articles from the New York Times for the two of them to discuss.
For students who don’t have elderly neighbors but who belong to a local church, temple, or mosque, I often suggest that they speak to their religious leader to see if there is someone in their community who needs a little extra help.
Volunteer Matching Services
In many communities around the United States, there are online volunteer-matching services that ESL students can use to find a volunteer opportunity. Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org) links volunteers to service opportunities in dozens of American cities. Here in the suburbs north of New York City, I encourage my students to search Volunteer New York’s website, www.Volunteernewyork.org
Using these and other sites, my students found a number of volunteer opportunities that interested them: as dog walkers at pet shelters, gardening assistants at the local botanical garden, “friendly visitors” at assisted living facilities, and drivers for food pantries and soup kitchens, picking up food donated by restaurants and supermarkets and delivering it to the food pantry.
Service Learning Projects
Service learning—the formal integration of community service into English language instruction—is an increasingly popular pedagogic strategy. As one of the Learning the Ropes topics that I invite my students to select for a semester-long project, I have started giving my students the following option:
“A great way to practice your English is to become a volunteer for an hour or two each week (e.g., at a battered women’s shelter or animal shelter, at a food pantry or soup kitchen, at an ESL program for beginners, or driving old people to the supermarket or the doctor’s). Find out some of the places you could volunteer, talk to volunteers at two organizations, and tell us what you discovered.”
Accordingly, in recent semesters, my ESL students have worked in small groups to explore how to become a volunteer EMT, how to help care for patients at a local hospital, how to volunteer at their children’s school and/or their local library, how to participate in refugee resettlement programs—even how to serve as a conversation partner for beginning ESL students. When they present their volunteer projects in groups to their classmates, they often end up inspiring their fellow students who hadn’t previously given much thought to the idea of volunteering.
A Few Caveats
It’s important to help your students understand that finding a volunteer opportunity can be as challenging as finding a job. It takes resourcefulness, patience, persistence, and (in some cases) luck. Finding where and how to apply for a volunteer position can be a challenge. There are volunteer application forms to fill out. There may be interviews with a volunteer coordinator. I encourage them to see each of these potential obstacles as a learning opportunity—opportunities to practice their English language reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. Those students who persist and succeed in jumping through the volunteer application hoops invariably report that their volunteering experience not only helped improve their English language skills, but strengthened their sense of belonging to a larger American community.