Fort Mill Times

Language of caring: Fort Mill ESL classes help immigrants assimilate

Soula Petropoulou takes notes during a English as a second language class at Flint Hill Baptist Church in Fort Mill.
Soula Petropoulou takes notes during a English as a second language class at Flint Hill Baptist Church in Fort Mill. Special to The Fort Mill Times

Neri Gomez has had perfect attendance at her weekly English Second Language class at Flint Hill Baptist Church for the past three years.

Gomez, a Mexican immigrant, did not understand any English when she came to her first class. She now understands most spoken English, though conversing with native English speakers still makes her nervous. Gomez spoke to a reporter through translator and 15-year program volunteer Jennifer Garrison.

“I believe that coming here is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me because I’ve been able to learn English,” Gomez said of the program that has been a mainstay in the community since 2000.

She brings her children, Katherine, 8, and Christopher, 4, with her each week and they love the program just as much as she does, Gomez said.

“Tonight on the way here in the car, the children were singing, because they were excited to come to English classes,” Gomez said.

“When I tell them to get changed because it’s time to go to English class, they do it faster than when they get ready for school,” she laughed.

The program began in 2000 when there was an influx of immigrants – mainly men – who came to the area to work during a surge in new construction and local church leaders got together to discuss how best to help them, said program founder Barbara Garrison.

“It was really the first internationals to speak of in this area,” Garrison said.

“We knew they had a lot of needs and we decided the best way to help them was to teach them English. We wanted to help people and it was something new and different that we were trying.”

The free program operates as a result of donations from individuals and churches and by the support of Life Builders ESL Ministries, an evangelical non-profit that also helps sponsor an ESL program at First Baptist Church Fort Mill and at five other churches in the tri-county area and in Charlotte.

Flint Hill helps meet tangible needs of students as well, opening the church’s clothing closet to program participants whenever there is a need. The church has given ESL families’ emergency funds, helped with food donations and helped meet needs at Christmas.

“We’re a ministry, so we have a Christian viewpoint in all that we do,” Garrison said.

Gomez, who attends a Catholic church in Charlotte, said her children have learned a lot about God and her faith has been strengthened as a result of the ESL ministry.

“God is in all denominations,” Gomez said. “Somebody here gave my daughter a small Bible (and) she carries it around in her backpack and reads it by herself.”

Garrison said many of the ministry’s volunteers – who help with everything from teaching to preparing snacks – have served since the beginning.

“(The students) who come are not the ones who get the most out of it,” Garrison said. “I think we get just as much as they do.”

Gomez said she is thankful for the impact the volunteers and the church have made on her and her family’s life.

“This church is good for my life…I’m very content here,” she said.

Kelly Lessard:, @KellyLessardFMT

Want to go?

Flint Hill Baptist Church free ESL classes meet every Tuesday night from September to May from 7 p.m. – 8:45 p.m. Free childcare is available for children ages birth to fifth grade. New students can join at any time. For more info contact Barbara Garrison at 803-548-4611 or call the church at 803-548-0672.