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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Country Homes Christian Church has offered English tutoring to nonnative speakers for 40 years

Doni Walker, left, and Elizabeth Housley run Country Homes ESL School on the North Side. (Nina Culver / The Spokesman-Review)
Doni Walker, left, and Elizabeth Housley run Country Homes ESL School on the North Side. (Nina Culver / The Spokesman-Review)

The Country Homes ESL School is celebrating it’s 40th anniversary this year, having tallied 380 tutors helping 594 students from 57 different countries during the last four decades.

The school was started by Country Homes Christian Church in north Spokane in 1979 to help deal with the influx of Vietnamese refugees coming to the area in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. It’s been going strong ever since.

The school offers free instruction to adults from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 8415 N. Wall St. Free child care is offered during class time for those that need it. “It’s mostly one-on-one tutoring for refugees and immigrants from other lands,” said director Elizabeth Housley. “You can come as many times as you want. We have some that come every day and some who come once or twice a week.”

The school has 15 tutors and 18 students. The students come from Mexico, Brazil, El Salvador, China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, South Korea and Taiwan. “It really spans all over the place right now,” Housley said.

Many people don’t realize that they don’t have to speak another language in order to teach English to someone, Housley said. In fact, if someone does speak the language it means that the immigrant isn’t forced to use their English to communicate. “It would help for you to speak their language, but it can be a handicap,” she said.

Assistant director Doni Walker has been with the school for 37 years, starting out as a volunteer tutor. The school has picture dictionaries for a variety of languages. Each picture is labeled with the English word for the object along with the name for the object in Spanish, Chinese or another language. These days there are also high-tech options, Walker said.

“You can Google different languages,” she said. “It’s much easier than it was 37 years ago.”

It can be hard to learn a second language as an adult, Housley said. “It’s so hard,” she said. “I’ve tried. We have people in their 60s and 70s. They keep coming back.”

The Community College of Spokane has an ESL school, but Walker said that having one teacher in a classroom of 30 doesn’t work for everyone. “That’s a really hard environment,” she said.

It can be particularly hard for those who are timid or not used to asking questions of authority figures. Housley said she likes being able to tailor her program to be able to help people with their individual needs.

Some students want to learn enough English to get a job, take a driver’s license test, make conversation or pass a citizenship test. “We offer help in whatever area they need help,” she said. “You see progress much more quickly. I really prefer the one-on-one setting.”

People are welcome to attend the school as long as they want, Walker said. “We don’t have any cut off,” she said. “People can come as many years as they want.”

Volunteers who are with their students for a long time frequently become friends and the tutoring sessions are also a social occasion. “Some of our students and immigrants can feel pretty isolated,” she said.

Housley said the school does little advertising, but it have no problem filling up and even has a waiting list a lot of the time. “Surprisingly, even without doing anything, they just show up,” she said.

The school is always looking for volunteers, which is how Walker got started. She said some volunteers come and go, while others have stuck around. “We have some people who have been here for 20 years,” she said.

Housley said people don’t need any special skills to be a volunteer. “I think a lot of it is a desire to help and being interested in other cultures,” she said.

The school can have a profound effect on students, giving them a chance to get a job, go to school or carry on a conversation with a neighbor. “You have a lot more freedom when you speak the language,” Housley said. “It’s an all-around learning process for everyone. I think the students aren’t the only ones who are learning.”

Walker said she’s grateful that the church has continued to financially support the school.

“It’s been an important thing all these years,” she said. “There’s never been a question that they wanted this to continue.”

The school plans to celebrate its 40th anniversary with an international lunch on April 27.

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