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Darien volunteer program helps students learn English

Student Maria Reynoso laughs March 18 as she jokes around with volunteer tutor Bud Walton during a Tutors On Wheels session at Lace Elementary School, 7414 S. Cass Ave. in Darien.
Student Maria Reynoso laughs March 18 as she jokes around with volunteer tutor Bud Walton during a Tutors On Wheels session at Lace Elementary School, 7414 S. Cass Ave. in Darien.

DARIEN — To help adults with little or no English-speaking skills, the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph now is offering a free literacy program at Lace Elementary School in Darien.

The program is sponsored by the Sisters through the organization School and Tutors on Wheels, which formed with volunteers to teach the English language.

"I think we have a responsibility to not only welcome immigrants, but to help them adjust in our society," said June Stella, who started volunteering and teaching students with the group in September.

The volunteers in Darien range in age from 17 to 70 and include backgrounds from retired teachers to construction workers. It's this unique setup that is a contributing factor to the program's success.

"We concentrate on what's important to [the students]," said Theresa Denton, executive director of School and Tutors on Wheels. "If they want to be able to talk to their child's teacher better, then we focus on that. We don't just say, 'OK, we're going to do grammar today.' "

What started in 1993 as a program with 20 volunteers and 25 students has blossomed into 425 volunteers tutoring about 900 students. Denton was blown away this year by the amount of volunteers in the Darien area who came out to help.

"The response for tutors was remarkable," Denton said. "In January, we ended up training in one session more tutors than we ever had in a single session before. We had 42 people who we trained."

Statistically, English is one of the hardest languages to learn, yet one of the most widely spoken languages around the world. Despite the level of difficulty, Stella said her students' progression has been phenomenal, but it wasn't always easy.

"You see little eye contact because they're ashamed they can't speak [English]," she said. "It reminds me of my dad who came from Italy who could not speak, and he learned."

Dena Provenzano of Darien has tutored four students since she started volunteering in January. One of the reasons she signed up was to help bridge language gaps in the community.

"I like knowing that this is also helping families communicate because I can't imagine what it must be like when they're trying to help their children in school and not being able to understand that," Provenzano said.

To some, it may seem surprising this service is needed in DuPage County, but not for Provenzano.

"Being involved with the district for so long, I've seen just how many languages are spoken and just how many countries are being represented," she said. "To me, I was pretty excited about the program."

Each volunteer said the most rewarding part was helping their students feel more confident to speak English. Some said it was more rewarding for them than the students after they learn.

"It's remarkably rewarding to help somebody become empowered, to help them find their voice and to help them succeed," Denton said.

Classes meet between 5 and 8 p.m. every Monday for one-hour tutoring sessions. For information on how to become a volunteer literacy tutor, call School and Tutors on Wheels at 708-482-5060 or visit

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