This article was written by Paul Elisha, Academic Counselor for Merrymeeting Adult Education.
When I first started working as the Academic Counselor at Merrymeeting Adult Education in 2010, our Multilingual Learner (formerly referred to as English Language Learner [ELL] or English Learner [EL]) program consisted of one English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class, one teacher, and about eight students. For the next nine years, our ESOL program fluctuated from 5 to 20 students, one to three teachers, and one to three classes. So in the fall of 2019, when I received a call from Carol Kalajainen of the Midcoast New Mainers Group saying they had about 30 asylum seekers coming to the Brunswick area who were in need of ESOL classes, I panicked inside.
Up until that phone call with Carol, I had never heard of the Midcoast New Mainers Group. I quickly discovered that they are a non-profit, faith-based group of volunteers committed to helping New Mainers get the resources and support they need to reach sustainability and establish a sense of belonging in the local community. They were eager to get the wave of asylum seekers coming to the Brunswick area connected with free English classes as soon as possible. Our first problem, however, was that none of the asylum seekers had reliable transportation to get to our classes in Topsham or Bath. When it became evident that a majority of them were moving into housing on the Brunswick Landing near the Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) Midcoast Campus, we reached out to our partners over there. They graciously provided free classroom space in the University of Maine at Augusta (UMA) Brunswick Center.
We immediately utilized the space at UMA Brunswick to do intakes, advising, CASAS testing, and classes with students. The location was ideal, but within a couple of weeks we found ourselves on the brink of being removed from campus due to one big issue: noise control. The asylum seeking families had no childcare set up, so they were bringing their young toddlers and babies to class. While UMA and SMCC were conducting college classes in the building, little kids were running around playing and yelling to each other in the lobby and moms were consoling screaming babies in the hallways.
Carol and I brainstormed the situation and the Midcoast New Mainers Group stepped in to help these families access childcare at the local Head Start and other daycares in the area. Carol and I remained in constant communication to ensure, to the best of our abilities, that classes were held during times that families had access to childcare.
As an additional resource, we were able to utilize Midcoast Literacy, a non-profit organization in Bath that provides free literacy education. Midcoast Literacy connected all of our new Multilingual Learner students with an English tutor. Arrangements were made for tutors and students to meet on the SMCC Midcoast Campus or at Curtis Memorial Library to ensure that tutoring sessions were within walking distance from where most of the asylum seekers lived.
Just as it seemed we were starting to get our feet under us in being able to serve a Multilingual Learner population three times bigger than what we were used to, COVID-19 hit. With an amazing display of flexibility, patience, and creativity, our ESOL teachers dove into conducting their classes over Zoom. The Midcoast New Mainers Group worked with both Midcoast Literacy and Bowdoin College to provide refurbished computers, laptops or tablets/iPADS to asylum seekers for them to connect with our classes and their Midcoast Literacy tutors online.
Over time, as things gradually opened back up from the pandemic, Kelli Park, one of our ESOL teachers, helped get our Multilingual Learner families outside and connected to the community. She partnered with the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust to hold outdoor potlucks and community gatherings on the Brunswick Landing (conveniently located near where a lot of our Multilingual Learner families live). This has encouraged a lot of our Multilingual Learner students to dive into learning English by immersion as they share conversation, food, music and games with each other.
As more asylum seeking families and refugees from Afghanistan move into the Brunswick area, Merrymeeting Adult Education continues to seek ways that we can grow our ESOL programming. We currently offer 10 different ESOL classes from the Beginner to Advanced levels (three of them are in-person at the UMA Brunswick Center and seven are on Zoom). We hold two in-person Accent classes at our Topsham center for Intermediate and Advanced Multilingual Learner students. Plus, we are running for the first time this April a Multilingual Learner Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Preparation Course and Northstar Digital Literacy Course for Intermediate and Advanced Multilingual Learner students interested in becoming a CNA and/or enhancing their computer skills for the workforce.
Now, in addition to having seven ESOL teachers on staff, we have also hired an interpreter, Benedita Kakhuba, who is fluent in English, Portuguese, French, Lingala and Spanish. Benedita and her family are asylum seekers from Angola. Back in the 20-21 school year, she went through our Maine College & Career Access Program to gain acceptance into Southern Maine Community College, where she currently attends part-time. As Benedita takes classes toward a degree in Business Administration, she works for us and for the Immigration Resource Center of Maine as their Housing Assistance Specialist to provide language assistance and cultural brokering services for New Mainers applying for the emergency rental assistance program. Her linguistic skills and passion for helping New Mainers gain opportunities to increase their English language skills has greatly enhanced our ESOL programming.
The Midcoast New Mainers Group continues to support our Multilingual Learner students by coordinating volunteer transportation to and from our Topsham and Bath locations for intakes, academic advising, and CASAS testing appointments. In addition, the Midcoast New Mainers Group has provided funds for our Multilingual Learner students to have their high school diplomas officially translated into English, which is often the first step toward accessing college or specific job opportunities. Plus, they have partnered with a dozen or so businesses in the Brunswick area who are committed to hiring New Mainers as soon as they receive their work permits.
When I received that initial call from Carol Kalajainen back in 2019, I had no idea how we were going to meet the academic needs of a Multilingual Learner population which was three times the size of what we were used to. I did not feel ready. Looking back, I realize that if it wasn’t for the Midcoast New Mainers Group, Midcoast Literacy, UMA Brunswick, SMCC, Curtis Memorial Library, Bowdoin College, Brunswick Topsham Land Trust, the many businesses in our area committed to providing jobs for our Multilingual Learner students, and the flexibility, ingenuity, hard work and passion of the teachers and staff at Merrymeeting Adult Education, we would not be where we are today. I have learned that it is important to tap into every resource our community has to offer when serving our students. I’m incredibly grateful for all of our local partners and community members who have stepped up to help our New Mainers feel welcome and at home here in Brunswick, Maine.