Teaching Immigrants Requires More than Tutors

Posted by on Jun 16, 2017 in News |

Teaching Immigrants Requires More than Tutors: Stories of Justice


Sister Barbara Dreher and Associate Kay Barnes Lend Expertise to English Tutoring Project


by Sister Mary Flick, justice coordinator from Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet – St. Louis Province March 3, 2017


While immigration has captured the nation’s attention in recent months, the Sisters of St. Joseph have been reaching out to the newest of neighbors throughout their history. For some, that “reach” happens close to home through work on the board of the English Tutoring Project (ETP) in St. Louis. ETP has been providing on-site English language tutoring to children from immigrant and refugee families since 1998, with the coordinated efforts of 17 congregations of women religious in the area.

Sister Barbara Dreher has served on its board of directors since 2008, and Associate Kay Barnes has been lending her expertise as a development professional since 2014. Together, they have made visible the CSJs’ love of God and the dear neighbor without distinction.

Expanding Hope, Making a ‘Little Difference’

Sister Barbara Dreher was executive director of advancement for the St. Louis province when she was invited to serve on the ETP board in 2008. Since then, she has been its chair and vice-chair. More than warming a seat, she brings her keen eye in seeing opportunities to invite donors to join the work, and her large heart for teaching children.

Sister Barbara has years of experience as a fundraiser for Fontbonne University, and as provincial of the St. Louis province. She currently serves on the congregational leadership team. But she considers her early years as a CSJ teaching first grade, to be one of her best experiences of ministry. “They [the students] look you straight in the eye and beg you to teach them how to be who they are,” she says.

The chance to help children succeed in school and beyond was motivation for her to become involved in the English Tutoring Project. The program began with “retired” sisters teaching in a donated RV that was driven between participating schools. Today, the English language tutoring program works with immigrant and refugee students on-site at seven Catholic grade schools in St. Louis city, county, and St. Charles county. Twenty women religious and one laywoman “retired” from classroom teaching serve as tutors. In the 2015-16 school year, their classrooms included 156 students from 20 countries who spoke 22 native languages.

The program, Sister Barbara says, “encourages and supports children of immigrant and refugee families to become a part of their community. And the students go home and speak English, helping their parents to learn.

“When I step back and look at who we are as CSJs – how we turn beyond ourselves to serve a world in need, that we are to do all that woman is capable of, that we are serving the dear neighbor – the English Tutoring Project is an opportunity once again to be of service, and expands my hope of making a difference one child at a time.”

Sister Barbara’s experience came together for ETP in a three-year strategic plan that ETP conducted in 2015. “We asked, ‘How do we sustain our ministry if we believe we are making a difference to children and their families?’ I knew I could assist by putting together opportunities for funding,” she says. “In the nearly 30 years since we began, we’ve served children from at least 30 countries at the Catholic schools, with no cost to the family or the school.”

Those years have seen the program evolve: from sisters who volunteered, to offering stipends to the tutors, both religious and lay; expanding the board to welcome lay members; and hiring a full-time advancement director.

“It’s a holy business,” Sister Barbara says. “We have to have business savvy to ensure our ministry will last. Our board knows how to mix the value of mission and margin. There is a strategic commitment to ensure ETP will have the financial support as long as we need it. Children just want an opportunity to be the best they can be. We religious congregations caught that and knew it was our responsibility to help that happen. It’s a humbling place to be. I know we Sisters of St. Joseph are committed to ensuring the viability of the ETP,” she says. “I can’t do it, but we can.”

Finding Resources to Get the Work Done

That “we” includes CSJ associates. Kay Barnes became involved with the English Tutoring Project like many who become CSJ associates: she accepted the invitation. Sister Barbara contacted her with news that the ETP was looking for a lay woman to serve on its development committee. Kay has two personal reasons to be involved in a program like ETP.

“My mother’s first language was Spanish, and she had to acquire English,” Kay tells. “I grew up understanding how difficult it was for her. She always had a real interest in helping other people with language.”

And her own family lived in Germany for several years. “I watched my children go through language acquisition,” she recalls. “It happens so quickly for children and is an easy process if they are given an opportunity.”

Kay is beginning her second three-year term on the ETP board. She currently is a development officer for Webster University with more than 20 years of professional fundraising experience. “Since we were going to raise money [for ETP], we needed to reach into the community and find people who could get behind the program and offer resources.”

Since joining the ETP board, Kay has identified a family foundation that was a “fit” for the mission and work of ETP. “The development director and I made a call. We thought ETP would be a good opportunity for them, and they said yes.” In 2016, ETP received a $25,000 grant from the foundation, with the grant renewed in 2017. “I am proud to be able to share the message of ETP,” Kay says, “and help the donating family foundation recognize that it is a good mission.”

To see how quickly the kids get up to grade level when they are given a chance, Kay says, is part of the inspiration and motivation for her to work with ETP. “I see my own children by watching them. It is a big deal for a parent to see that your child does not have to struggle to do his or her studies and play with the other children.”

A CSJ associate since 2008, Kay says ETP is a perfect example of how she can reach out to the dear neighbor without distinction.

“Our first sisters – some of whom were lay women – would go out into the community, find the need, come together and talk about it, then deal with it. That’s what I think we’ve done here. In my little way I am helping with the English Tutoring Program, not by teaching, but by finding resources to get the work done.”

It is the CSJ way, with many works making little differences that meet the needs of the dear neighbors, wherever they call home.