COLUMBIA — Imagine being a young mother with small children, stuck at home in a foreign country without any means of transportation and unable to communicate because of a language barrier. There are no quick trips to the grocery store or spontaneous chats with a girlfriend, just waiting for a tired husband to return home, sometimes as late as 10 p.m.
Many women who come to the United States from other countries experience this type of isolation, and they can easily become depressed. It’s a preventable situation for them and their families.
Alicia de Myhrer is the program administrator of English to Speakers of other Languages (ESOL). She recognized the need for a ministry that would reach out to these mothers, provide transportation to classes where they could learn about their surroundings, and how to communicate in English.
When she was a young mother married to a physicist and professor, de Myhrer moved around Europe almost every two years. The native of Ecuador had to learn French, German, Italian and Danish, and she remembered how difficult it was not to have a support system.
When her family moved to South Carolina, de Myhrer, a member of St. John Neumann Church in Columbia, immediately got involved with a budding ministry for Hispanics.
With a master’s degree in linguistics from Denmark and a master’s in Spanish from the University of South Carolina, de Myhrer had all the tools necessary for developing a curriculum to target the needs of the Hispanic families. When the present vicar for Hispanic Ministry arrived, Father Filemon Juya, she initiated her first church-sponsored language program in Batesburg-Leesville.
“I started lessons at St. John of the Cross Church in Batesburg,” she said. “The Hispanic families would go to church, but only the men would stay for the lessons. The women went home with the children.”
De Myhrer was persistent in her aim to reach out to the mothers and children. She was determined to make a difference in the lives of young Hispanic women who were spending hours in their homes unable to make any social contact.
In addition to the English classes after Mass, she started a summer program that provided transportation and activities for children while their mothers went to class. It did not take long for the need to outgrow the facility at St. John of the Cross and the minute volunteer work force. De Myhrer began to look for facilities closer to her home in Columbia. She decided to look for funding to compensate some of the workers to add some stability to the program.
Kathleen Merritt, diocesan director of Ethnic Ministries, assisted de Myhrer in her search for funding. The program was awarded a grant from the Sisters of Charity Foundation. Unfortunately, the Hispanic Initiative Grant expired in 2004 and they will once again be in search of funding.
“ESOL is true outreach to poor Hispanics,” Merrit said. “These are the people who would have been forgotten otherwise.”
De Myhrer is currently running several different programs in addition to the 11-week course for mothers. The course is offered twice a year on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 9:15 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Franciscan House, near the St. Joseph Pastoral Center. She has evening sessions for men from 7-9 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. She offers computer classes on Saturday afternoons from 4-6 p.m. at one of the USC computer labs with the help of Spanish majors and bilingual students.
During the summer, she not only has lessons for the mothers, but includes the school-age students under 19 years old in “Preparing Hispanic Youth for Success.” Many parents have expressed their gratitude for the children’s summer program that provides tutoring sessions, field trips and other educational initiatives.
“Thanks for the program,” said Aida Marisol Villatoro, a parent. “It is very good for the children and for the parents as well. I hope that the [coordinators] continue with the program for all the Hispanic children of the United States, because there are Hispanic children in every state.”
Jesus Ontiveros Jr. will never forget the gift he received last summer.
“The reason I liked this program was because I learned to read,” he said.
Two years ago Leslie Mitchell, a retired preschool teacher and parishioner at St. Joseph Church, responded to a church bulletin announcement asking for volunteers for ESOL. She did not let the fact that she could not speak Spanish stand in her way.
She has been learning Spanish songs and nursery rhymes with the children and sharing her culture with them during the preschool lessons.
“I love working with these women and children,” Mitchell said. “They are so appreciative. There is such a sense of community among these families as everyone tries to do their part.”
De Myhrer is now working toward her doctorate in linguistics with an emphasis on social linguistics and second language acquisition. She would like to see her program grow. She would also like to teach other people to be ESOL administrators, allowing her to spend more of her time developing curriculum.
“The women do not only learn how to communicate in English, but they form friendships with other women and become more confident,” de Myhrer said of her program for mothers and children.
She continues to seek volunteers and funding for her outreach to the Hispanic community, and tries to remain hopeful that God will continue to provide.
How to help
Contact Alicia de Myhrer at (803) 738-0733 or e-mail her at Alicia@readingispower.com.