[Lura Kelley with student]
If you are ever feeling sad or depressed, and you get the chance, talk to long time Brighton teacher Lura Kelley. Her joyous enthusiasm for teaching and her love of her students will light up whatever room you are in (even a zoom room!) I got to talk to her recently about her new project of working with an Afghan family recently resettled in Rochester.
“it all started with the Greater Good Project at First Unitarian,” Lura said. “Each December, we are asked to give half of what we would have spent on the holidays to our collective efforts in the greater Rochester Community. This year, a project (selected by our kids) was to support Keeping our Promise, and I got to hear Ellen Smith’s presentation at church. I was so inspired I just had to do something!”
“I am working with a recently arrived Afghan family of seven: a man and wife, their four little girls and the wife’s brother. This family got out of Kabul in the mass chaos of August 2021, an amazing feat in itself but made infinitely more astonishing given that the youngest daughter was a newborn, just four days old when they boarded the flight to Fort Dix. “The father’s English is good (he worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul) but the mother and her brother arrived with more limited knowledge. The two older girls, who just finished Kindergarten and third grade at the children’s School #15. are like little sponges, soaking up English at their primary school and talking to me at home. “ Lura says.
Lura’s Afghan family was brought to Rochester by Keeping our Promise, a national organization headquartered here helping wartime allies resettle. When these refugees arrive, they typically have few material possessions beyond the clothes on their backs and no knowledge of how to navigate the “stuff” of life here: renting an apartment, getting drivers licenses, signing up for government programs, enrolling in training programs and schools. KOP volunteers help with all these crucial starting out tasks by establishing Caring Circles to help them settle in and get started, and the refugees themselves contribute at least 100 hours of volunteer service helping other refugees.
“I wanted to do something that I felt comfortable with, and I found my niche! And I can help without being overwhelmed as it would be if I were doing it alone,” Lura reports. “My Caring Circle group has a retired Physician Assistant who can help get these four little girls and their parents healthcare!” Other members of her circle include technical help to set up all the tech needs for online learning, communication with family and friends and managing the administration of modern life. Other volunteers have helped the family get clothing, driven them to first appointments, helped them learn how to navigate the bus system and the help hasn’t stopped there. Volunteers helped the family set up budgets and banking, navigate RGE and enroll in their training programs; there even is a volunteer helping the father learn how to drive.
Lura sees this opportunity as a meaningful extension to her long teaching career. “I always wanted to be a teacher, and after I graduated from SUNY Geneseo with my K-6 certificate I started working immediately in the Brighton schools,” Lura reports. Her teaching career was mostly at Council Rock where she was in K-3, “ I met the most wonderful teachers, principals, administrators and of course children!” After her so-called retirement, Lura immediately started subbing “so I could keep up with technology and educational innovations,” she notes. Her first year, she ended up substituting 150 out of 180 days, hardly retiring. “This has been so much fun!, especially to see what the other fabulous teachers are doing.”
As part of her substitute teacher duties, Lura has worked with English Language Learners at Council Rock Primary School. “Some of those kids started with no English, but quickly became more proficient. Its so exciting to see their confidence and fluency improve ,” Lura says with her face lighting up. “I just love the children!”
‘My Afghan family lives within walking distance of the Maplewood branch of the Monroe County library. We walked down together to get the family library cards soon after they arrived in Rochester; the girls immediately went to the computers and the mother and I were introduced to Brian DiNitto, the New Americans Librarian. After we got our cards, checked out some books, and played Vampire Princess on the computer (well, some of us did!), we walked home excited to go back again.”
“The mother (and her sister) signed up for Brian’s English lessons. Each week, they meet with Brian on zoom and go over a grammar, usage and pronunciation lesson. I get a copy of the lesson as well, and practice with the mother on the two days a week I am with them after school. We review the prior lesson and get ready for the current week, practicing what they have learned. There is some friendly competition between the sisters, which keeps the mom on her toes,” Lura reports. “And despite just starting out, the family is always giving me things like a steadying hand or a bowl of soup,” she continues. “That is very generous indeed as the mother does all the cooking for her family of 7.” Lura reports that the father and brother initially got most of their food at the public market, enormously grateful for volunteer rides so they didn’t have to carry everything home on the bus.
“The whole family is busy learning,” Lura continues. “The two men were enrolled in English classes shortly after arriving, but the mother needed to be home with her youngest children. The older girls are enrolled in The Children’s School #15 and the recently turned 4 year old was able to begin pre-K this spring at a nearby school. The men are starting in programs to learn how to become auto mechanics, and they are very motivated to continue to learn, get skilled jobs and contribute to their families and the larger community. Both parents want the very best for their kids and it is so heartwarming to see them thriving here, all four of these little girls so obviously bright and cheerful and excited about learning.”
Lura reports that the mother’s English lessons are hard, including verb tenses and idioms as well as the many exceptions to the rules. After they work together on the lessons, the mother makes dinner and Lura plays with the girls. “They tell me what they did at school, show off what they have learned and then we play games. It is so fun! The delightful little girls are just blooming!”
In addition to her twice weekly visits to their home, Lura also goes with her family on various outings “We all went to the Strong Museum of Play to celebrate a birthday—there was a special reduced admission day—and everyone had so much fun. I love getting to be a gramma for this family!”
The Maplewood library, and Brian DiNitto the New Americans librarian, are important parts of Lura’s story. “While each branch has an ESL section, the City has made a big commitment to this effort here at Maplewood,” Brian says. “I am full time— teaching English classes both one on one and in groups, as well as helping people prepare for the extensive American Citizenship exam. As a public library, we serve everyone who comes in. Our patrons are at all different levels of knowledge and I tailor the offerings to what they need. We have grammar, vocabulary and usage classes, group conversation classes, and I can even work with flashcards for those who are beginning their study.” The Maplewood branch has the largest collection of ESL materials in the system including an inventory of consumables such as health books, safety in your new home books in English and various languages, US history and Citizenship study books all of which patrons can use.
“The Maplewood neighborhood has a good deal of refugee activity,” Brian continues. “Several important organizations are headquartered here and many refugees first settle in this neighborhood. We work with all of them, and also meet monthly with a group of the heads of all the organizations providing services to refugees.” For patrons who come with at least a starting knowledge of English, Brian has a set series of about twenty lessons which they work through in one on one zoom sessions of about 45 minutes each with worksheets for them to practice on their own. “I keep a file on each of our students, noting words they need to practice and lessons they have mastered.“
“Our conversation classes are especially fun. Everyone answers a certain question like—“what is your biggest holiday?” “what time do you eat dinner?” Just things to get them started talking,” Brian says. These classes involve speakers with all levels of English, so the answers could be long or short. Brian also offers a presentation class for more advanced learners. “Each person prepares a 10 minute talk on something about their culture—we had an entomologist from Columbia give us a presentation on all the varieties of ants in her country,” Brian said. “Many of our learners are already highly educated, but are new to American English.”
While Brian often has student interns who help with the classes, “we could really use some more volunteers!” These
volunteers could either be on zoom or at the library for the walk in hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. “We just need more English Ears—volunteers who can correct pronunciation and usage for their students. No special training is required, just a willingness to listen and encourage.”
Evidently this work is very rewarding for both Brian and his volunteers: “I love my job, it is fun and meaningful, and every day is different!” And Lura has found a calling that brightens her days and the days of those around her. “Building a larger family has always been near to my heart,” Lura says. “This work is so satisfying and joyful, I am so glad that I am able to make this contribution.”
For more information, contact Amy at [email protected]
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