Youths teach American culture Learn and Serve: By helping immigrant children learn English, students can meet community service requirements for graduation.

March 10, 1996|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Every Saturday, Jessica Lin, 16, takes on the role of a teacher tutoring elementary school students Angel and Kitty Li in English at the girls' Columbia home.

"I think it's actually fun for them," said Jessica, an 11th-grader at Centennial High School, whose young students moved to Columbia's Village of Harper's Choice from China last year. "They are so receptive. Their ages are probably the best time for them to learn."

Jessica is among 30 students from Atholton, Centennial, Hammond, Glenelg, Mount Hebron, and Howard high schools participating in the Learn and Serve Project, which began in December to help immigrants adjust to American culture.

Under the program, administered by the nonprofit Foreign-born Information and Referral Network Inc. (FIRN) in Columbia, students tutor, provide companionship for homebound immigrants, help foreign-born residents prepare for citizenship and perform other services.

The volunteer work, which involves about 80 hours of effort over about 20 weeks, also gives high school students the credits they need to meet the Maryland community service requirements for graduation.

"Students don't have to be good in math or best in their class to become involved," said Evelyn Jimenez, volunteer coordinator for FIRN. "The main criteria is that they are willing to help other people."

Students and clients are paired, depending on the wishes of both parties. After having reviewed student applications, Ms. Jimenez talks with each volunteer. Students who are accepted into the program are given videos that prepare them for their meetings with the clients. In addition, each is given a book on teaching techniques and ways to help their pupils feel comfortable.

Other help comes from workshops that include training for teen-age tutors in cross-cultural sensitivity, information on careers in human service and opportunities to share experiences with other students.

The initial meeting between student and client is set up at the FIRN office in Columbia to determine where and when future meetings will take place.

"They smile at first, a little shyly, when they first meet," said Ms. Jimenez of the students and clients. "They don't know they are going to be good friends."

Often, clients and volunteers forge close working relationships, such as the one between Jessica Lin and the Li sisters, who spend each Saturday afternoon practicing verbs and vocabulary.

On a recent Saturday, Jessica visited Angel, 11, and Kitty, 9, fifth- and fourth-grade students at Swansfield Elementary School Harper's Choice.

Entering the dining room, where a sign hanging on a doorknob reads, "We love to study," the girls eagerly began work at a table strewn with papers, books and dictionaries, most of which were provided by FIRN.

Their mother, Janet Fong, who does not speak English, anxiously watched over her daughters' shoulders as they took a quiz designed to review lessons from the previous week.

During the next two hours, Angel and Kitty practiced conversation; learned the meaning of phrases they may hear at school, such as "hand in your homework"; and worked on their vocabulary, writing in a notebook the words they didn't understand.

Interspersed with the slow English conversation were brief discussions in Chinese. Jessica, whose parents are from Taiwan, also speaks Chinese. The Chinese conversation was reserved for those occasions when Angel or Kitty could not comprehend a certain word.

In addition to earning community service credits, Jessica said the Learn and Serve Project gives her an opportunity to converse in Chinese, which her parents encourage her to do.

Most of all, however, she said she derives "satisfaction from being able to help the girls adjust."

More information about the Learn and Serve Project is available by calling Evelyn Jimenez at 992-1923.

Pub Date: 3/10/96

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