By Morgan McGrath
Chelsae Poelking has been teaching English as a second language for the past two years, and every Tuesday night, she can be found in an Akron Crossings classroom, laughing with students as they collectively crack some jokes.
“God made all people valuable,” she said. “Everyone is valuable in his eyes, no matter where you’re from, or what you’ve been through. That’s why we want to love them [refugees] and help them have the best chance they have.”
Poelking first fell in love with volunteering during a trip down south to Clarkston, Georgia, just a 20-minute drive outside of Atlanta.
Historically, Clarkston is known as the “most diverse square mile” in the United States, with residents from 40 different countries who speak a total of 60 different languages.
While volunteering in Clarkston, Poelking was introduced to Bena Paisley, the founder of non-profit organization Akron Crossings.
Roughly 9 months later, she decided to get involved with Akron Crossings.
In 2021, Poelking taught a level five-course, which is the highest available option at the “school.”
Now, she’s at the second-highest level, and on a weekly basis, her class number ranges from anywhere between 2-8 students.
“I find it easier time in the higher level because I can engage with them, I can have the conversations, they know some of the vocabulary,” she said. “It just seems to suit my personality better.”
Flags represent the countries of those who have resettled in the North Hill neighborhood of Akron. Photo by Kelly Krabill.
For Poelking, a typical class session includes a review of previous material, practicing relevant vocabulary, listening to spoken language, and learning grammatical concepts and structures.
Due to Akron Crossing’s religious roots, each of the course sessions involves reading a short section from the Christian Bible.
“You know, a lot of these cultures, even our students who aren’t from Christian-based countries, are very story and oral culture driven,” said Poelking. “And so even just the idea of traditions and beliefs and stories resonates with them.”
Poelking says that religion is not forced on the students, and if they are unwilling to participate in the more Biblical-based portion of the class, this is not a problem.
She also says her students’ typical struggles relate to grammatical discrepancies with English speaking and writing.
For example, it might be tough to understand the difference between could, would, and should, especially for those who didn’t grow up speaking the language.
These challenges might also depend on a person’s country of origin. Certain dialects have trouble with specific sounds more than others.
“You know, for example, a lot of Hispanics, starting a word with ‘S’ is hard. They add an ‘E’ at the beginning because they don’t have certain sounds,” said Poelking.
However, these challenges provide room for conversation and growth amongst students.
In one instance, Poelking had just taught a class lesson on medical terms, including blood pressure and prescriptions.
A week later, one of her students came into the classroom and said he was able to communicate with a doctor after his coworker had gotten injured at work.
She is proud of her students’ accomplishments and the relationships they have formed in the classroom.
For Poelking, when she’s not at her full-time job, her Tuesday nights are spent tucked away in a classroom, laughing with students and having fun.
“I know that if I asked them for something they needed, they would do it in a heartbeat, and that’s just so encouraging to me when there’s so much in the world that doesn’t feel like the way it’s supposed to be,” she said. “You know what I mean?”