ELLA – for English Language Learners of Arizona

Ahwatukee residents, from left, Chelsea Smith, Anastasia Plumb and Carrie Brown recreate the experience of migrants and refugees who can’t speak English and must contend with American paperwork. They are given paperwork in Spanish so they know the ordeal non-English speakers face.

A new nonprofit has sprouted from the concerns of Ahwatukee and East Valley women for refugee women resettled in Phoenix who often are isolated due to their inability to speak or understand English.

ELLA – for English Language Learners of Arizona (pronounced A-ya, as ella means she in Spanish) – was officially recognized as a nonprofit this year, but the concept had been percolating in the mind of Ahwatukee’s Rebecca Tobin for years.

The ELLA board of directors consists of Tobin as founder and president, and Ahwatukee residents Monica Thoresen and Tiffany Sellwood as vice president and treasurer respectively. Jenny McSweeney of Arcadia, a friend of Tobin’s since middle school, is ELLA secretary.

It all began when Tobin, a former Kyrene de las Manitas fifth grade teacher who grew up in Mesa, decided to learn Spanish.

She had taken Spanish classes in middle school and at Dobson High School, but following the 2010 death of her mother, Jane Powell, who had taught Spanish at Kyrene Altadeña, she decided to seriously pursue learning the language.

“Before I went back to work for the reading intervention program at Monte Vista, I had this inner desire to be bilingual,” said the mother of three.

“I started learning Spanish in 2016, taking immersion classes in Costa Rica and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. My Spanish teacher at Chandler’s Language Synergy, Martha Silva, had friends who’d adopted a Syrian family, and she knew I was a teacher and wondered if I’d be willing to go to the woman’s home and help her learn English.”

Tobin’s pupil was a 22-year-old mother of two who spoke 10 words in English at best. Because she was homebound due to the children’s care and no transportation, she was unable to attend classes offered elsewhere.

“My belief that I’m not entitled to a better life just because I was born on this side of a fence led me to help out a fellow woman in need of an English education; a skill I just so happen to possess, which is to teach. We started with a lot of pictures and acting out,” recalled Tobin.

“And every time I left her house which was a 25-mile drive, one way, I felt amazing and thought, I can continue helping out one woman, and that’s fine, but there has to be a lot of women in her situation.”

She admits to “a ton of research” before taking the leap and starting a nonprofit.

“I ordered a ‘Nonprofit Book for Dummies’ and a ‘Grant Writing for Dummies’ and began researching like crazy. I was kind of trying to talk myself out of it thinking there’s got to be something like this out there, but no, there wasn’t,” she said.

Research revealed she needed a board of directors before proceeding. She invited Thoresen and Sellwood.

“They didn’t miss a beat; both said yes right away,” recalled Tobin.

“Baby steps” is how she recalls the progression.

Through Sellwood, a director of digital channels and analytics at ASU and 15-year Ahwatukee resident, Tobin found Alexandra Estrella, an ASU junior who was born in Mexico and raised in the U.S. since age 8. Estrella designed the logo.

Ahwatukee resident Zoey Vartola, a Chandler International Film Festival programmer and former journalist at Jiangsu Educational TV in China, produced ELLA’s promotional video.

Now, ELLA is moving into fundraising and seeking volunteers.

The leaders plan to use raised funds to hire teachers, but volunteers who would be interested in helping with conversational English – which can be done via Skype, FaceTime or other video chat programs – are also needed.

Raising awareness is also key, and a recent “Ella Experience” night  at Tobin’s home illustrated how difficult being a foreigner in any country could be.

In an attempt to make the ELLA Experience authentic, Tobin had  attendees complete everyday activities, but with the catch that everything was conducted in Spanish.

“We created three different stations for the participants of the night to get a sense of the challenges non-English speakers have while trying to do everyday tasks,” she said, explaining:

“We had a ‘doctor’s office’ where patients had to read medical forms in Spanish, and then attempt to fill them out while the medical assistant spoke to them only in Spanish. We had a grocery store station where shoppers were given a list in English with a bag of pesos and had to navigate the store, with all items labeled in Spanish.

“They had to check out with the cashier and figure out how much they owed. The cashiers spoke only Spanish, but occasionally would speak slowly and help customers count out the pesos.

“We had a customs station with the newly-arrived refugees watching an instructional video in Spanish and then follow all the directions.”

To further help the women identify with the immigrants, each person had five cards for their journey that indicated things they might have brought from their homes: passport, jewelry, cell phone, money and family pictures.

“While they worked their way through the stations, we went around and gave them red cards to indicate that one of those items had to be sold to pay for a necessity, or was lost, or fell in the ocean, or that they’d gained something like a baby, or a pregnancy, or an illness,” Tobin said.

“The women attending were incredibly uncomfortable by the last station. Many were speechless, and one woman said she had a hard time breathing during the custom’s video because she had absolutely no idea what was being said.”

The experience heartened Tobin.

“It was a phenomenal night. To see my community show up on a Friday night, listen openly, engage fully and encourage and support our mission was truly heartwarming. Along with our strong belief in this mission, the positivity we have received is what is propelling us forward.”

For Ahwatukee resident and Wells Fargo senior vice president Chelsea Smith, the ELLA Experience was eye-opening – and disorienting.

“It was confusing and stressful,” Smith said.

“When the ‘customs employee’ could see I was confused, she simply repeated the same instruction louder and slower, which is something I know I’ve done to other people, and after experiencing it myself I can tell how utterly unhelpful it is,” she added.

Smith explained what happened:

“At the doctor’s office it wasn’t hard to put myself in the shoes of a mother coming in with a sick child, but doing so in an office where all of the conversation and forms were in a foreign language forced me right out of my comfort zone.

“I couldn’t read the forms and was worried that I was indicating something incorrectly or incompletely that would hinder the care of me or my child. At the end, most of my forms remained blank as did the expression on my face. I was desperate for someone to come and help me through, but there was no one there. As a mom, you’re supposed to be able to help and protect your children, but not being able to communicate stripped that from me and left me feeling as helpless as a child.”

The evening’s objective was “to have the participants feel the struggle, stress, uncomfortableness of trying to navigate when you don’t speak the language,” said Tobin.

Thoresen, a bilingual speech-language pathologist who has lived in Ahwatukee for 10 years with her husband and four children, said education is “the doorway to opportunity” for these women.

“I’ve always had a great deal of compassion for refugee families because, as a mother, I know I would do anything to keep my family safe,” she said, adding:

“Living the life we do, it’s often hard to imagine what it must be like to watch your homeland destroyed and your family’s lives threatened every day. I cannot fathom what it must be like to be forced to flee my home, bringing only the possessions I can carry on my back, and to begin the long and arduous journey to get my family to safety with the hope of starting a new life.”

Thoreson considers her involvement with ELLA a way of showing gratitude.

“I’m so incredibly grateful to live the life I do, and I believe there’s no greater way to show my gratitude than by helping those in need.  ELLA was created to aid an underserved population of refugee women currently unable to attend ESL classes and, therefore, often remain isolated in a foreign land in which they do not speak the language.

“Providing these women with the opportunity to learn English gives them the ability to connect with others, to contribute to and participate in their communities, to be active participants in the education of their children, and to pursue further education themselves if they so choose.”

Sellwood affirms that empathy for other women inspired her to come aboard as an ELLA board officer.

“As a mother, my heart goes out to families that are forced to flee their homes because of life-threatening violence and persecution. I cannot imagine having to pick up my life and start anew in a country in which I speak the language, much less one in which I don’t – but that is the reality for these families,” she said.

“For the women, it’s even more of a challenge to assimilate as they’re typically at home with the children without transportation,” Sellwood added.  “Their future is limited. ELLA was created to bring this education – and a human connection – right into the homes of this underserved community so that they be empowered and given the chance to prosper here in U.S.”

Tobin is planning another ELLA experience in January, and in the meantime encourages people to donate to the nonprofit and/or volunteer. Information: Ellarizona.org.

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