When she moved to Orchard Cove, a Hebrew SeniorLife senior living community in Canton six years ago, Nancy Connery knew she would be moving to a vibrant community for older adults filled with fascinating neighbors, ample social opportunities, inclusive dining and maintenance services, and on-site Harvard Medical School-affiliated health care if she ever needed it. What she didn’t anticipate is that she would become a volunteer teacher of English as a Second Language.
Orchard Cove offered many ways to get involved in community life, and Connery soon joined the Orchard Cove Scholarship Committee. For the last 20 years, the committee has managed a resident-funded program that has given thousands of dollars to help more than 100 Orchard Cove employees achieve their academic goals. A retired director of Admissions and Financial Services at MGH, Connery mentors staff members as they submit applications every year. But over time, she noticed a problem. Despite speaking English well enough to excel in their jobs and build rapport with residents, “it became apparent that some of the staff had the desire to apply for certificate or college programs but their lack of proficiency in English was a significant obstacle,” Connery said.
The solution? A workforce development and employee engagement program developed by Hebrew SeniorLife that offers English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. Since 2018, the program, known as Supporting English for Employee Development (SEED), has offered free on-site ESOL classes to Hebrew SeniorLife employees, starting at NewBridge on the Charles and extending to other of the nonprofit’s campuses.
Developed and spearheaded by Marianna Mapes, program manager for Volunteer, Youth and Community Engagement at Hebrew SeniorLife, SEED classes are conversation-based and vocationally-oriented, helping participants develop their language skills through engaging conversations. “People aren’t sitting around a table listening to a lecture. The sessions are interactive. Residents, who volunteer, serve as conversation coaches and are warm, friendly, and supportive so no one feels intimidated. Students get in the habit of speaking more English, and when they leave class they can use what they’ve learned immediately at work or beyond work,” Mapes said.
Together, Mapes, who provided structured, customized instruction for each session and Connery, along with four other Orchard Cove volunteers Connery recruited, expanded the SEED program to Orchard Cove earlier this year.
The five residents work with seven members of the Orchard Cove housekeeping staff, who primarily speak Portuguese or Haitian Creole, to improve their English skills. Mapes prepares the exercises, which prompt real conversations between the volunteers and staff members.
“The housekeepers are engaged and learning and enjoy their time with us as much as we enjoy them. It’s very rewarding to watch them gain confidence in speaking English. Marianna has been instrumental in setting a comfortable, warm tone that helps us all relax, laugh and enjoy learning together,” Connery said.
Because of Covid safety protocols, the residents and staff members meet in a room with enough space to socially distance and all participants wear masks – even though all residents and employees have received vaccinations. Masks make it more challenging to see how to make the correct mouth movements to pronounce words correctly but they haven’t given up. Takeaway snacks are offered so participants can enjoy them later when masking is not needed.
The pilot program at Orchard Cove has been a success. “Katia Fearebay, our Housekeeping manager, flagged me down the other day to say, ‘You’re going to do more sessions, right?’ She said the participants love it and they really want to do more,” Connery said.
“We have a diverse workplace at Orchard Cove, and in the housekeeping department, we have five different nationalities. I see that the class is making a difference,” Fearebay said. “Now we have a group of staff, including one colleague who is very shy, who are really engaged and looking forward to their SEED classes.”
The program has also given back to the volunteers. Orchard Cove is filled with residents who are community minded, not only with other residents but with those who work there and with the greater Canton community. Orchard Cove’s ESOL program is a natural extension of the scholarship committee and many other activities at the campus.
“There’s a sense of camaraderie. We laugh a lot and they open up to us. We know more about each other. We know their stories and about their children. If we see each other in the hallways, we stop and have a real conversation with them,” Connery said. “I feel like we’re giving back, and seeing how happy the participants are means a lot to all of us.”
The volunteer-run ESOL program at Orchard Cove is part of a friendly, resident-driven culture that encourages residents to make use of their leadership experience and passion for civic engagement. Like Connery, many residents feel a true sense of ownership and stewardship.