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Teens learn language along with care skills

Biruck Kebede, 16, from Ethiopia, helps resident Dottie Pattee get into her bed at the Waterford. Kebede  is in a program to make English language learners more  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Biruck Kebede, 16, from Ethiopia, helps resident Dottie Pattee get into her bed at the Waterford. Kebede is in a program to make English language learners more (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Students practice English, prepare for job in program

It was dinnertime in the Skilled Nursing Unit at the Waterford retirement community in south Spokane.

Michael Reofrir escorted a resident to the dining room. The lanky North Central High School senior carefully matched his stride to the faltering gait of the white-haired gentleman – Reofrir’s dark skin a striking contrast to his patient’s pallor. Placing a gentle hand on the resident’s back, Reofrir bent his head and listened attentively as the gentleman speculated about the upcoming meal.

Reofrir is a student in a pilot program operated by the Spokane Vocational Skills Center. Kim Orth, medical careers instructor at the Skills Center, partnered with Dan Tougas, an English language learner teacher for Spokane Public Schools. In February, they launched a class designed to enable ELL students to learn a skill and become employable.

Tougas said the class “takes Kim’s nursing expertise and my expertise with these particular kids and creates a great opportunity for the kids.”

The class is comprised of 13 students from 11 countries, none of whom speak English as their primary language. Orth said, “When we finish the students will have over 100 hours of real nursing assisting experience in a skilled nursing facility and will be eligible to take the Washington Nursing Assistant Certification test.”

For the past several weeks the students have been gaining that experience at the Waterford. Unlike other Skills Center classes, this course was offered only after regular school hours. This meant a lot of work and long days for everyone involved, but students and teachers said the effort has been worth it. Orth said, “I love it! The kids are a barrel of laughs, and such hard workers.”

Teens from Myanmar, Kenya, Philippines, China and Vietnam became a classroom version of the United Nations. While their native languages span the gamut from Tagalog to Chinese, they worked together to learn nursing skills, as well as to improve their English. Tougas said, “We use the content as the vehicle for the language. It’s been a lot of fun and really rewarding.”

The students agreed.

“I love working with the people,” said 17-year-old Edda Mbugua. “Richard and Esther are my favorite patients. Every time they see me they are excited and say, ‘Oh you’re here again finally!’ “

Mbugua’s family moved here from Kenya three years ago. She plans to pursue a nursing degree and help her mother in the adult family home they own and operate.

Michael Reofrir’s mother is also in the medical field, and he wants to be a registered nurse like her.

“I thought this would be a first step toward my goal,” he said. But this outgoing student wasn’t always so voluble.

“I was kind of nervous my first day at the Skills Center,” he admitted. “I’m the only guy sitting at my table.” He grinned and gestured to the girls across from him. “They are so mean to me! They say, ‘Why are you so quiet?’ but now…”

Eilian Eukenio interrupted. “Now he’s annoying,” she said, and in a gesture universal to teens, she rolled her eyes.

The students laughed. Because this class consists solely of ELL students, they feel more comfortable working on their English skills with each other. An easy camaraderie developed that delighted Tougas. He’s enjoyed watching the students’ comfort with the language progress, but he’s also seen them develop a sense of compassion and caring as they assist their patients.

Those attributes were obvious when Reofrir spoke about his work at the Waterford.

“When you’re helping the residents, they are so nice. They say ‘thank you.’ It’s like my grandma in the Philippines.” He paused, and ducked his head. “I miss her.”

Sixteen-year-old Eilian Eukenio grew serious, as well. She thinks of home often.

“I’m from Chuuk Island in Micronesia,” she said. “Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to be a nurse because on my island there’s not very many nurses.” Her dream is to get her degree and return to Chuuk. “I miss the ocean and my culture,” she said.

Her classmate Nhi Pham from Vietnam also has medical career goals.

“I want to be a baby nurse and take care of newborns,” she said.

The skills they are learning benefit both staff and residents at the Waterford.

“The staff enjoys being able to mentor them, and the residents love to have them,” said Azure Hurst, director of Skilled Nursing Services. She said the residents have great patience with the teens’ sometimes faltering English. And because the students don’t have as many duties as the staff, they have more time to listen to the residents’ stories – something both groups seem to enjoy.

Orth has found inspiration in these hard-working students.

“Not many teenagers would spend an extra 270-plus hours in school, during the evening, unless they were motivated to learn and make a better life for themselves.” She paused. “They’ve taught me a lot too.”