Her Job Only Starts with Teaching English as a Second Language Instructor for Adults Provides Refugees with Much They Need to Adapt

By Niederberger, Mary | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), March 17, 2004 | Go to article overview

Her Job Only Starts with Teaching English as a Second Language Instructor for Adults Provides Refugees with Much They Need to Adapt


Niederberger, Mary, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In recent years, the Prospect Park Apartments in Whitehall have become home to scores of refugees from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Most arrive with whatever belongings they were able to pack into suitcases, with little or no money and with little ability to speak English.

Though they come from different backgrounds, at Prospect Park there is a common thread that weaves through their lives. Eventually, most end up sitting around the table in the tiny apartment classroom of Theresa Andrews, an English as a Second Language, or ESL, instructor from the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

Andrews' job as a family literacy instructor is to teach English to the adults in the refugee families -- the children get ESL instruction from the Baldwin-Whitehall School District -- and to act as a liaison between the adults and the school system and any social service agencies they deal with.

But Andrews has taken it upon herself to broaden her job description to include helping families with almost any problem. She's been known to find food and clothing for needy families, organize car pools to get parents to school activities, set up social outings, arrange medical appointments, accompany frightened refugees to hospital emergency rooms and even drive children to dental appointments when they have no transportation.

Strand of gold

Her dedication above and beyond her paid responsibilities prompted the state Education Department to see her as not just a thread that weaves through the community, but as a strand of gold.

Andrews, of Jefferson Hills, recently received the Adult Practitioner Excellence Award from the Adult Basic Literacy Bureau of the state Education Department. She was one of 10 adult practitioners across the state to receive the award and the only one from this area.

Karen Mundie, associate director of the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, said the agency nominated Andrews for the award because it was obvious she went far beyond the scope of her job in serving the refugee families assigned to her.

She currently has 18 families from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Liberia, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Congo, Sudan and Somalia as her students.

"She's become an access point to the refugee community for services, obviously not services that our agency gives. She figures out where they can get the services they need," Mundie said.

"She'll say to us, 'I have a student who is having a baby and doesn't have any baby clothes.' Then she'll find someone who recently had a baby who has grown out of their infant clothing and can donate them. She does that sort of thing routinely."

Andrews said she helped her students outside the classroom so they can succeed in the classroom. "I just feel compelled because they are my students and I want them to be able to succeed and achieve their goals and they can't do that if their needs are not met," she said. "I also feel so bad for many of these families who are so kind and gracious but who have so little."

Tender and tough

Andrews, who holds a master's degree in linguistics, is a mixture of tenderness and toughness with her students. While she holds a soft spot in her heart for the problems they face outside the classroom, during class time, she pushes students to learn as much as possible during the two-hour sessions that are held most mornings and evenings.

Nothing but English is spoken in the classes, where she uses a combination of flash cards, pictures and pantomime to get the lessons through.

Though there is a baby sitter available in an adjacent apartment, Andrews allows parents to bring small children to class if they prefer. She doesn't miss a beat in her instruction, even with toddlers roaming and playing in the cramped but cozy room where lessons are held. …

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