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The language of learning

Story by Elizabeth Arnold

Johnny Flowers grins from ear to ear as he proudly poses for a photograph with each of his 15 students. They too wear wide smiles with tears brimming in their eyes, glowing with the pride of hard-earned accomplishment. The crisp paper in their hands not only signifies graduation from the Buckner ESL and Life Enrichment program; it also marks the beginning of a new life.

“Many of these students have never finished high school,” said Flowers, who serves as the assistant director of domestic aid and assistance at the Buckner Center for Humanitarian Aid. “This is the first time they’ve completed anything and received recognition for their great deeds.”

The ESL and Life Enrichment program takes students with little to no English skills and teaches essential topics such as names, addresses, money, transportation and health. Students discuss goal setting and develop action plans. The class even takes field trips to transportation stations, banks and restaurants, prompting students to use their new skills in a real-world setting. The goal, Flowers said, is to empower the students to communicate on their own.

“I encourage the students that it’s important to know what’s around you and to experience new things,” Flowers said. “Learning only opens up new opportunities, so I encourage them to never stop learning. Their journey does not end with this ESL class.”

The class meets from 10 to 11:30 a.m. every Wednesday for a full semester. Students are given homework and expected to arrive prepared for each class. For many, the class is the highlight of their week.

“The ladies look forward to coming because they’re excited to hone their skills and excited to learn,” Flowers said. “Seeing how excited they are about learning gets me excited. Taking this from a biblical perspective, they’re not just hearers of the word but also doers.”

Though this semester’s graduates range in age from 18 to 57, their life stories are markedly similar. Most have lived in the United States for years, and many since they were teenagers. They work tirelessly to provide for their families, selling tacos on the street corner, cleaning houses or working at local flea markets. The majority is undocumented. For each, family is the primary motivation.

“They want to do it so they can get around in Dallas, but the big deal is getting to meet with their children’s teachers and be a part of their educational process,” said Jerilynn Armstrong, director of corporate and foundation relations. “They want to be able to communicate with the teachers and the different people their children come into contact with.”

Flowers, along with Jackie Belt, director of Buckner domestic aid and assistance, began the program in 2013 when they realized clients often came to the center seeking aid but had to pull their children from school to serve as translator between the parent and Buckner staff member.

Demand for the class speaks for itself. Flowers and Belt use little advertisement for the class and post only minimal fliers around the center. Yet every semester the class reaches capacity.

“We’re at a place where we have to turn people away,” Flowers said. “This is just one piece to our whole operation, but if we had another staff person then we could definitely start another class because the life enrichment portion has made such a huge impact on the students.”

Five of the students plan to further develop their English skills at Eastfield College this fall. From there, they’ll be able to complete their GED and ultimately earn teachers aid or nursing certificates. As Flowers sees it, this class is only the beginning for each of his students.

“Our desire is to provide a hand up, not just a hand out,” Flowers said. “Many of our students have been told that they can’t go anywhere or accomplish anything, often by people who are close to them. So to these students, this paper with a few signatures on it means that they can learn and they can do this. Because of God’s amazing grace and the support of Buckner their dreams are becoming reality.”

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