Ayuda está en ‘la casa’; Help is in ‘the house’

Hanna Schiciano, Columnist

Masters Junior Olivia Stern has volunteered almost every Tuesday since her freshman year at Casa de Lenguas (“House of Languages”) in Mount Kisco, NY. After two years of volunteer experience at Casa, Stern has recently earned an executive position. 

Casa de Lenguas is sponsored by Neighbor’s Link, a non-profit organization that offers education and empowerment programs for new immigrant families, according to its website. Stern volunteers at Casa teaching English to those who speak Spanish as their first language. 

“Most of them don’t have a lot of education and don’t know a ton of English, but their jobs require them to speak English. Some are in their 20s or 30s, but a lot of them are in their 50s and 60s. They come to Casa every Tuesday to sit down with a volunteer, usually my age, and they learn English,” she said. 

Stern first got involved with Casa through a club at her previous school. 

“I’ve always loved Spanish, so the fact that I could help people, while having fun was a great opportunity,” she said. 

Each September, the volunteers are assigned to a student whom they teach for the duration of the year. Last year, Stern shared a particularly memorable experience with her student. 

“Nina was 20 years old and at the highest student level. I helped her with comprehension and conversation. It was really nice to connect with her because we became good friends. I was able to hear about her life and experience in her home country of Guatemala, before coming here [to America],” she said. 

At first, Stern was hesitant about her teaching abilities, but soon realized that it was easier than she originally expected. 

“When I first started, I wondered: how much can I really help this learner with English? But you really are capable of doing more than you think. I thought I was gonna be a horrible teacher, but it just comes naturally.” She continued, “Seeing them learn each week, passing their test and just getting better and better is super rewarding. And, to build a relationship with them,” she said.

This year, however, Stern does not teach, and instead holds an executive position at Casa, responsible for overseeing the sessions. 

As a result of COVID-19, only students and executives are currently allowed in the center, while volunteers teach online from home. Since many of the students are not able to purchase their own computer, they need to be in the center where access to computers is provided. 

Stern checks-in all of the masked attendees, prior to entry into the building, by taking their temperatures and getting their responses to the COVID-19 questionnaire. She then assigns each of the students to a computer. 

Another executive will put each volunteer in a breakout room with their respective student. Executives then move between the rooms to see if anyone needs assistance. 

“Whenever they [the students] need help or are confused with their tutor, I come over. I also give tests when the teachers are done with a unit,” she said. 

Stern mentioned that there are times when learners do not pass a test or specific task. 

“We’ll teach it a different way and then they get back up on their feet and they’ll pass it,” she said.

Without both the students and volunteers in the classroom, Stern said that it has been harder for the them to connect with one another. 

“In the beginning, the learners can be kind of quiet, so if you’re sitting right next to them, you can motivate them and get to know them better than if you’re on a screen. I think they’re opening up, but it’s definitely slower,” she said. 

Additionally, only half the number of students are allowed in the center, as compared to before the pandemic. 

“We now have to limit it to 10 to 15 learners because we can only fit a certain number in this space. Usually, it’s probably around 25 to 30,” she said.

Although the separation has been challenging, remote learning has been just as impactful for Stern. 

“I feel like I’m contributing because I get to help the volunteers make the most out of this special experience and have them be in the teacher shoes. It is equally as rewarding to see them go through the process, while I’m now watching on the side,” she said.  

NOTE: If you are interested in learning more about how you can get involved with Casa de Lenguas, email: olivia.stern@mastersny.org.