In January of 2006, the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program at Vienna Presbyterian Church received a $21,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help its students learn job-seeking skills. Since then, 41 students have benefited from the year-long program, including 14 who found new jobs, and the program received the Champion of Compassion award from the Department of Labor.
"The goal is to help those people in the community who need to find jobs, or find better jobs," said Bonnie Grouge, a director with the church's ESOL program. The money was used to buy new computers with applicable software in order to set up a computer lab to teach ESOL students the skills to find jobs. With the new lab, the ESOL program began a computer education program. "It is such a worthwhile outreach in our community, in this concrete way. This is going to help [the students] in everything they do for the rest of their lives," said Grouge. She added that the computer education program transforms lives of community members and empowers individuals by promoting self-sufficiency.
Marvin Reed, a 76-year-old Vienna resident, has been teaching at the church's ESOL program for the last eight-and-a-half years. "I've always enjoyed involvement in the teacher-student relationship and being able to see individuals progress," said Reed, a retired dentist who also holds a degree in education. He said that the six computers provided the students a chance to work one-on-one with their teachers and mentors to develop job-seeking skills. "Some have never more than seen a computer before, others have quite a bit of expertise," said Reed about the students in the program. Another benefit of the computer lab is that most of the students did not have computer access at their homes.
Vienna resident Elaine Wright was the principal grant writer for the computer education program. She said the lab allowed for a central location where the ESOL teachers could help the students learn. Prior to receiving the grant, the teachers used to occasionally take the students to the public library down the street to help them develop computer skills. "The grant gave us an opportunity for something much more permanent and helpful," said Wright.
The grant, however, also imposed restrictions on the program. Wright said the downside of receiving a grant from the Department of Labor were the strict restraints on the program. The students who benefit from the program had to be under a certain income level and all had to have limited English-speaking skills. The Department of Labor income requirement meant that the students were all below poverty line, and anyone above the income limit could not benefit from the program. "The greatest disappointment were the limits on students. Some students missed [involvement in the program] by $400 a year," said Wright.
THE GOOD NEWS is that now that the grant year has expired, anyone can join the program. There are no longer strict restrictions governing the project. "We still have four sessions a week," said Grouge. Reed and other teachers hold computer education sessions on Monday and Wednesday mornings after the regular ESOL class, as well as Tuesday and Thursday evenings before the regular ESOL class.
Wright said that the computer education program was very successful. "Most significant, computers are there in place and we budgeted to maintain this program," she said. "We can take as many students as we want." She said that a solid program was developed that will continue to serve the community. Also, the eye-opening experience for her was that the program was volunteer-driven.
"We received very very generous support," said Reed. "That's what really made the program," he said about the number of volunteers who supported the program. Reed added that some of the regular church members volunteered their time as mentors.
Students in the regular ESOL program will now benefit from the computer lab. Grouge said there are 280 students from 45 countries who are enrolled in the ESOL program. There are also 100 volunteers who help with the daily operations, including 51 teachers. "Some have educational backgrounds, and some have heart for helping other people," said Grouge.