Whether our forebears trekked across the Aleutian land bridge before the last Ice Age, were dragged here in chains from Africa in the 18th century or landed at Ellis Island from Europe a mere century ago, pretty much all of us, ultimately, came to America from somewhere else. And all the bits of culture and talent and energy from all those different parts of the world have added up to a formula that we like to think makes this country pretty special. Not all our differences melt away to unrecognizability in that great melting pot, but our diversity is in many ways our greatest strength. People have been fleeing oppression and privation to get here for a long time now.
While some Americans apparently do approve of the idea of closing down our borders now that they’re safely here, many of us are profoundly troubled by recent developments in regard to national immigration policy. “Since when does this country exclude immigrants based on religion, race, ethnic group or country of origin?” we ask ourselves. “Aren’t we supposed to be a haven for refugees from less enlightened places?”
While the new administration dukes it out with the federal courts over the constitutionality of certain executive orders, many of us are trying to figure out what we can do, personally, to ensure that America remains a welcoming place for those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Some of us have taken to wearing safety pins in our lapels as a signal that we’ll be there to take a stranger’s part if we see him or her being harassed. Others are writing donation checks to charities like the International Rescue Committee or the UN High Commission for Refugees, or simply leaving more generous tips for the (possibly undocumented) workers who clean our motel rooms or bus our tables in the diner. Maybe we’re petitioning for our hometowns to declare themselves “sanctuary cities,” or working through our houses of worship to help Syrian refugee families settle nearby.
If you’re still wondering, “What can I do to help immigrants in these harsh times?” Kathe Nack has a practical idea for you. A Gardiner resident, Nack started looking around for some volunteer work to do in 2013, after retiring from her career doing art preparation and restoration for the art gallery at Vassar College. She spotted an ad from the Ulster Literacy Association (ULA) seeking volunteers to take a training course as an adult literacy tutor. After completing the class, she teamed up with another volunteer, Linda Hart, to start presenting a course in English as a Second Language at the Gardiner Library, geared toward the migrant farmworker population of southern Ulster County.
That program has now been running successfully for four years; but, as Nack points out, “Many people living on farms can’t get to the library, because they have no cars. Or maybe a library is not a comfortable setting for them, because they have never even been in a classroom. We found that it’s most effective to go right into the farm. So it was a no-brainer, what we should do next.”
These days, Nack is the Southern Ulster Farm Program coordinator for ULA, leading teams of volunteers to work one-on-one for one hour per week with migrant farmworkers from Latin America, teaching them to read and write basic English. It started as a lunchtime program in the break room at Minard Farm, and has now expanded to six locations, with demand steadily growing as word of the program spreads via the farmworkers’ grapevine. “Every time we get a new farm, it’s like a coup,” says Nack.
Each volunteer signs up for three three-hour tutor training sessions, after which he or she is awarded a certificate of accreditation. Then there is a matching process, and when a successful assignment is made, the tutor and learner arrange a mutually agreeable place and time to meet for the weekly lesson. The schedule is “built around the farm rhythm,” says Nack, with fewer sessions during the harvest. “To be in sync with the seasons — that goes back to another time,” she notes.
Volunteers don’t need to be bilingual, but should expect to learn some conversational Spanish as they go along. “When I started, I did not know one word of Spanish,” she says. “Everything is a lesson.” But a sense of humor is a plus: “I try to make my classes fun, so they’ll want to keep doing it.”
Besides conveying basic literacy skills, the tutors help out with other challenges of navigating as a guest worker in a foreign culture — like how to exchange currency, get a library card, prepare tax returns or get ready to take a GED diploma exam or start the naturalization process. “It’s like life-coaching. You become a friend,” says Nack, noting that it’s important for the pair to establish a sense of trust early on.
Typically, the relationship begins with the tutor asking the learner what he or she specifically wants to achieve, and the lesson plans progress from there. ULA provides free starter sets of teaching materials for the volunteers to use, but sessions are structured around the learners’ practical goals: “We take our cues from them.”
Kathe Nack has found herself falling in love with the program’s target population; for three years now, she has invited a whole group of the farmworkers to her own home to celebrate Thanksgiving together. “They show up every week, after working so hard,” she says. “They have impressive determination.”
The next series of literacy tutor training sessions will take place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on March 16, 17 and 23, hosted by St. Joseph’s Church in New Paltz. There is a six-hour online component that must be completed first, so there is a registration deadline of February 22. To register or find out more, call the Ulster Literacy Association at (845) 331-6837.
“We live right in the middle of farm country. There’s this whole invisible population — they’re our neighbors, and we know nothing about their lives,” says Nack. “How many things do you do that change a life every week? The benefits are immediately visible. This is absolutely real.”