Church’s language classes help neighbors

By Anne Marie Gerhardt, Special Contributor…

SCHAUMBURG, Ill.—Omar Torres came to the United States seven years ago from Mexico and didn’t speak English. The husband and father of three daughters wanted to learn the language to improve his job skills and do the best to provide for his family. Mr. Torres and his family found help at Our Saviour’s United Methodist Church in Schaumburg, Ill., through its English Language Learners (ELL) and Outreach Ministry.

The weekly program began two years ago to help the growing Latino/Hispanic community in the greater Schaumburg area learn English and develop important life skills. “I have learned a lot here,” says Mr. Torres. “I can be in communication with my daughters. I am trying to do the best for my family.”

Peggy Burtt, Our Saviour’s Welcome and Assimilation Coordinator, started the program after graduating from the Conference Academy (Hispanic/Latino) for Faith Community Development in 2011. “I was the first Anglo graduate and I wanted to immerse myself in the culture,” says Ms. Burtt. “I found myself falling in love with the people and wanted to do something to make a difference in their lives.”

Omar Torres (second from left) and Alejandro Fuentes participate in English Language Learners (ELL) classes at Our Saviour’s United Methodist Church in Schaumburg, Ill. PHOTOS BY ANNE MARIE GERHARDT

Ms. Burtt began recruiting families at the Head Start day care across the street from the church, many of whom are living below the poverty level. The ELL pilot program started with 12 students. Today, up to 27 adults and 40 children are enrolled. The program is held every Wednesday evening from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The families receive a nutritious meal, and child care is provided while the adults attend class with a certified teacher. “We are helping with their food budget by feeding them a well-balanced meal once a week,” says Ms. Burtt. “They can also take home free bread donated from Aunt Millie’s Bakery in Des Plaines.”

“The free child care is key,” adds Kerry Bartholomew, one of the program’s instructors. “Similar classes are offered elsewhere, like the library, but the parents can’t attend because there’s no child care.”

Maria from Hanover Park brings her two young children to the program and says it helps her in many ways. “The meal is good with vegetables for my children,” she says. “The class is helping me learn to speak with my boys’ teachers and to explain what’s wrong if we have to visit a doctor or nurse.”

Alejandro Fuentes of Schaumburg started the program two years ago with little to no English skills and has moved up to the third level. “The teachers are really great and take a lot of time to explain things,” says Mr. Fuentes. “It’s helping me in my job. I have to learn more English to talk to customers.”

Mr. Bartholomew says the classes teach not only English but important life lessons. “The curriculum is designed to teach living and job skills like how to fill out a form, how to get around your child’s school, how to read a receipt,” he says. “The students who we’ve seen all last year and are in the second level—their English has really improved.”

Mr. Bartholomew is a high school teacher during the day and a member of Our Saviour’s. He says the program is very rewarding. “This is a service of my church and I wanted to be part of a unique program.”

The participants are also learning more about Our Saviour’s and all the church has to offer. Mr. Torres and his family are now members and appreciate how much the program has helped them. “All I can say is thank you,” he says.

Ms. Burtt says Our Saviour’s program has reached its capacity and is only scratching the surface of the need in northern Illinois. Her dream is to open up a school and help even more families. “These families have become my family,” says Ms. Burtt. “We are helping our immigrants and those who are undocumented feel like they can succeed here in our country. We are making a difference.”

The program received financial assistance in the Northern Illinois Conference through a United Methodist Foundation grant and creative ministries grants.

Ms. Burtt says any church can duplicate this program and would be happy to talk with anyone interested in getting started. You can reach her at (847) 352-8181 or

Ms. Gerhardt is director of communications for the Northern Illinois Conference.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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