ABHMS grant fuels ESL classes, community gatherings to empower families in Chicagoland

VALLEY FORGE, PA (06/25/2024)—“Edith, who came to the ESL [English as a Second Language] Open House, felt at home right away because she had participated in the Spanish/English Conversation Group held at Community Baptist Church Warrenville (CBC) before,” said Wendy Morris, a volunteer helping Latino migrants learn English. “She understands and speaks quite a bit of English but is eager to learn more, so she will be less dependent on her daughter’s translations,” Morris explained.

The ESL classes benefiting Edith and many others are part of a multi-faceted ABHMS-sponsored program to aid families of underprivileged students in Warrenville, Illinois. The program also provides monthly community dinners where families can get together and build relationships with one another as well as with the school and social services workers.

Monthly family dinners in Warrenville. Photo courtesy of Frank Walton private archive

Monthly family dinners at Clifford A. Johnson Elementary School  in Warrenville, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Frank Walton private archive.

Warrenville is a very ethnically diverse Chicago suburb with a sizeable wealth gap among its residents. Clifford A. Johnson Elementary School is a “high needs” school in town—students at the school represent over 35 ethnicities and come from countries as diverse as El Salvador, Colombia, Burma and India. Their needs vary, but common threads in conversations with their parents include financial literacy, ESL literacy and snack programs for the kids. Many families are in difficult financial situations.

Enter Warrenville Persons in Ministry (WPIM), an ecumenical association of ordained and lay leaders in Warrenville who have been collaborating on social justice issues for over 40 years. WPIM created a task force to assist Johnson School. The Rev. Frank Walton, intentional interim pastor of Community Baptist Church Warrenville, is on the task force. Others include the Rev. Justin Baxter, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, and Angela Mains, executive director for Outreach Warrenville. Together, they formed an organization called Johnson School Family Connections.

“We were meeting monthly with the school’s principal, assistant principal and social worker to figure out how we can better connect with the families at Johnson School,” said Walton. “Our churches had collaborated before on the Back-to-School program that benefits under-resourced local elementary school families and participated in other events. That concept [of collaboration] was already in place. We wanted to know, how do we build on this?”

They decided to start with relationship building by hosting a monthly dinner at the school, with the churches rotating meal preparation duties for gatherings that now regularly attract about 300 people every third Thursday. “There’s also free clothing available in the gym, and people leave with shopping bags full of clothes or things that they might need,” added Walton. The main benefit of the dinner series is facilitating connections among the parents to build a strong, more resilient community.

Families in need peruse gifted clothing. Photo courtesy of Frank Walton private archive

Families in need peruse free clothing in the Johnson School gymnasium. Photo courtesy of Frank Walton private archive.

CBC addresses a related issue of language fluency among Johnson School parents. Having done ESL work previously, the church had already laid the groundwork for the program. A pilot series of 10 sessions was designed for 12 participants, with plans for larger groups in the future. Transportation is the main problem, says Walton, as public transit in Warrenville is lacking. Each class has a specific focus, for example, the United States and its geographic regions, medical terminology to facilitate communication between the parents and medical professionals, and vocabulary necessary to apply for jobs.

The CBC volunteers were impressed by the enthusiasm the participants have for these new opportunities. “Our ESL Open House connected volunteers with potential students, eager to increase their English skills,” wrote Linda Pelle in the church newsletter. “The basement of the Education Building was transformed into a welcoming space with areas for both learning and more relaxed socializing. There was lots of enjoyable conversation as everyone began to get to know each other. Everyone is looking forward to the class sessions starting next week.”

Thanks to the ABHMS grant, the monthly dinners and the ESL, financial literacy, Internet safety, and parenting skills classes will be offered throughout the next school year.

By Rev. Dr. Anna Piela, senior writer at the American Baptist Home Mission Societies and associate editor of The Christian Citizen