Arabic to Thai: Elaine Dougherty Leads Language Program for Non-English Speakers
She received an award this week for her bridge-building in the city of Woburn.
Voices in a classroom, some thickly accented, were reciting the alphabet in English. When they reached “V,” the teacher had the students pronounce and compare “V” and “B.”
Down the hall from the classroom, Elaine Dougherty came in to her office after talking with a student from Brazil. Dougherty oversees a program that helps immigrants learn to speak English. Students can also take conversation, computer and leadership classes and, some sessions, learn about citizenship.
On Wednesday, Dougherty, site director of the international learning center of the North Suburban YMCA, received an award from SCI, Social Capital Inc., for what she described as building bridges in the community.
Students in the program she directs—an average of about 50 a year, according to Dougherty—come this year from 19 countries and speak 14 languages, she said, from Arabic, Cambodian, Laotian and Russian to Thai. In past years, students have come from Cameroon, Syria and Turkey.
Some speak no English at all. Some were never literate in their own native language, according to Dougherty. In some countries, she said, women are not allowed to learn.
Dougherty holds a degree in education from Lesley University, in elementary education.
Ironically, she wasn’t a good student in French in high school, she said.
“It didn’t make sense to me at the time,” she said.
Her first job: Teaching third and fourth grade at a private school in Boston. She was laid-off because of the budget.
Then, in early 1987, she got a call to teach a GED class at the Woburn Adult Evening School. She had a baby daughter then.
“I jumped at the chance to get out of the house in the evening and use my brain,” she said. She taught the course and “loved it.”
About seven years later, the director of the evening school program planned to retire. Dougherty was asked, she said, to become a co-director of that program. She accepted.
In the fall of 1997, the North Suburban YMCA approached Dougherty, she said, about starting an English as a Second Language (ESL) program. The Y has a branch called “education and training,” Dougherty pointed out.
The adult ed program at the high school was the only program in Woburn doing ESL then, she said.
Her students in the adult program at the high school had “begged me for a longer program,” she said, longer than two nights a week for eight weeks. But the ESL and GED programs were just breaking even, she said.
The program Dougherty now directs started in March of 1998, with three classes. Now there are four. Enrollment is kept at about 12 students per class. The program is free to students. It is funded, Dougherty said, through the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“It took time for word to get out that we were here,” she said.
“Word is out (now)," she said, "in the immigrant community.”
Dougherty is the granddaughter of Greek immigrants. All four of her grandparents came from Greece.
“Most of us are children of immigrants,” she said. She speaks “very little” Greek.
“I wanted to be American,” she explained.
She and her husband, Ron, have three children: Briana, Alaina and Meagan. They have “gone back,” Dougherty said, “and embraced their heritage."
The language program that Dougherty directs marked its 10 anniversary in 2008 with a celebration when students shared their cultures. It was a great teaching tool, and got students working together, Dougherty said. The next year, they moved the celebration to the Senior Center.
“Seniors loved it,” she said.
This year, the International Festival will be held May 12 at the Senior Center, with music, food and information, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. It is open to the public, Dougherty said.
The celebration has grown even bigger. On May 22, a Sunday, a “Worldfest Woburn” will be held by SCI and the learning center. SCI’s mission is “to strengthen communities by uniting diverse individuals and groups through civic engagement initiatives.”
The purpose of Worldfest is “to celebrate diversity in our community,” according to a flyer, with food, activities, dance, music, arts and crafts and children’s games. It will be held at Woburn Center from 1 to 4 p.m. (rain date June 26). More information is available on the SCI website.
The North Suburban YMCA nominated Dougherty for the SCI Community Social Capitalist award. The Y’s mission, she pointed out on her business card, to for youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.
Dougherty received a Drum Major Award from St. John’s Baptist Church last year, which recognizes community leaders.
“Quite an honor,” she said.
This past December, the language program—students and six staff—that Dougherty directs moved into the United Methodist Church downtown, on Main Street.
“The church has been absolutely wonderful about helping us to find space (for the program)," Dougherty said. "(It was) important to stay downtown,” she said, because so many students walk or take the bus.
She believes the program “needs to be a place where people from all over the world who do not have the support systems they have in their own country can come.” Immigrating is stressful, Dougherty commented.
“I want people to feel comfortable in the community at large (as well)," Dougherty said. Immigration has been politicized, but, Dougherty said “Woburn is a very welcoming community.” Downtown is vibrant again, she said, pointing to many immigrant-owned businesses.
“You have the world downtown,” she added.
“I want this (program) to be a place,” Dougherty concluded, “where (students) can always come back. This is their family.”