Giving + Learning: A personal account.

Working with a Somali couple in their home for six years now has resulted in one of the most rewarding relationships of my life. We started out with some basics–them reviewing the English alphabet, me learning the Somali alphabet. I brought in a “Ready to Read” book about the desert–something they were familiar with–and they asked me to help them read and understand a lot of the mysterious mail that was showing up at their apartment. I’ve met cousins, nephews and nieces, and friends; I’ve been treated like a family member. I’ve learned a lot about the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, where my friends are from, and I’ve learned about the compelling stories of the Somali diaspora in Fargo, Minneapolis, the US, Canada, the UK and Kenya. I’m looking forward to meeting more family members who are being resettled to Fargo in June of 2014, if all goes as planned. [Resettlement didn’t go as planned: the family is still in the Kakuma refugee camp as of Feb. 2016.]

I’ve had this great experience because I volunteered with Giving + Learning (G+L), an organization that started in 2001 by matching seniors at Riverview Place with New American refugee women studying for Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) exams. The G+L mission expanded to in-home English language learning, but volunteers continued to support New Americans studying for their CNA exams, their driver’s permit test, and other life-tasks where language or cultural knowledge might present a challenge. In their 11 years of operation, G+L matched 500 volunteers with 800 learners and was recognized in various ways as a tremendously successful non-profit agency in Fargo. The founder of G+L, Michele McRae was awarded a “Purpose Prize” in 2008; the organization was featured in a National Public Radio story “Retirees Lend a Hand to Refugees in Fargo, N.D.” in January of 2011. But by November of 2011, funding for the organization ran out.

Tutors like me have continued to meet with families and individuals even without agency support. The Rotary Clubs of Fargo-Moorhead initiated “Project English” in 2011 and brought Rosetta Stone to the city’s libraries and other key sites. Church groups have provided ELL support and citizenship test support in various settings, but the staff at LSS New American Services say that people still ask, “What happened to Giving + Learning?”

Adult education centers in Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo offer wonderful classes, but three hours a day is seldom enough for someone hungry to learn a new language. Transportation challenges, work, the cold, and/or family commitments make it difficult for some learners to attend class, and the value of forming a close relationship–one that transcends tutor-student–is immeasurable. For over 10 years, G+L volunteers contributed to making our cities welcoming communities; they have helped not only build English proficiency, but they have helped the integration process. And every one of those volunteers will probably tell you that they learned as much or more than the English Language Learner they were partnered with.

Thanks to the generous support of the Bush Foundation, I was able to re-establish Giving + Learning in 2014. About 45 learners and tutors worked together in 2014, more than 75 paired up (or grouped up) in 2015, and hitting 100 is a pretty logical goal / progression for 2016.  The only reason I don’t get to 100: I don’t have enough tutors.

If you have one hour a week that you can commit to meeting with an individual or family, Giving + Learning can provide you with teaching strategies, support materials, and ongoing guidance to ensure a successful match. If you can commit to tutoring for 10 weeks, that will ensure that you and your learner can make some progress, and chances are, you will be hooked on tutoring!  But life gets in the way, tutors take breaks and start again, so a 10 week commitment is a great start.

Sign Up: We have created an online form for volunteers to fill out.


Kevin Brooks working with his long-time partners, Faizil and Ardo.

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