Tentative smiles and nervous giggles punctuated the atmosphere around the table as DVCC volunteer Ruth Freedman encouraged the nine Hispanic women to communicate in English as much as possible. The setting was a weekly ESL workshop for DVCC clients who attend Spanish-speaking support groups.
Finally, Elena* summoned the courage to talk in English about her busy schedule. Most mornings, she explained, she rises at 6:30 to get her children ready for school before leaving for her job as a manicurist/beautician. Between children, her job, housework and sometimes attending ESL classes at night, she rarely gets to bed before midnight.
"But in winter, my job is very slow," she ventured. "People don't wax and don't do their toes."
Freedman applauded Elena's soliloquy, as her peers chuckled and nodded in understanding. Then Freedman took the group in another direction, asking the women if they thought their family, friends and neighbors understood about domestic violence. The answers were varied.
"Yes, my sister and brother and I understand, and we try to explain to our parents," one said.
"Not everybody understands, and they don't want to," said another.
"No," was a third, concise answer.
"My neighbor is not interested. She thinks it's normal," said another woman.
The conversation continued, with some of the women who were better versed in English translating for the others. Rebecca Watson, another volunteer and Freedman's co-teacher, also helped to translate for the entire group when the discussion got too complicated, as did DVCC Director of Counseling and EsperanzaCT Doris Urteaga, who oversees all of the Spanish speaking workshops and support groups.
The ESL workshops at DVCC aren't about conjugating verbs or providing formal language skill training. Rather, they give participants the opportunity to bring together their experiences with domestic violence and the words they need in English to convey these experiences. The benefits are realized when the women have to interact with their children's schools, with other social service agencies and, especially, with the criminal justice system.
"When we discussed words to use when contacting the police during one of our first workshops, one young woman burst into tears because she was reminded of the time she had to call 911 and she couldn't communicate," Freedman said. "Generalized ESL classes are wonderful, but these women also need a place where they can talk about specific needs regarding the English language and domestic violence."
The ESL workshops also address very practical subjects, such as applying for a driver's license, rules of the road and passing the driving test, one of the class's most recent endeavors.
In addition to assistance with English, DVCC offers clients training in basic computer skills. For the past several years, the ESL and computer workshops have been held consecutively, following support group meetings in Stamford and Norwalk, so that clients are able to take advantage of everything in a convenient "one-stop shopping" format. Recently, in response to client requests, evening computer classes have been added at the two locations. All are geared toward helping people impacted by domestic violence develop the skills and confidence they need to be independent. And while the workshops may be somewhat homespun, clients are comfortable trying something new in a non-threatening, supportive environment.
"There are other people providing the same services and probably doing it much better, because that is their focus," said DVCC Executive Director Rachelle Kucera Mehra. "But the reality is that, for a variety of reasons, most of our clients won't go there. So we can either say to our clients, 'well, that's your problem'. Or we can do something about it."
As the discussion around the conference table moved on to ways in which people could change attitudes about domestic violence in their communities and ways to stop violence at home, one woman could no longer contain her emotions and she broke in - in English - to thank the volunteer teachers and DVCC staff.
"When I came here the first time, I came with a big trouble," Maria* said, tears streaming down her face. "Sometimes people don't understand. Other places, people don't have the time. Here that's not true. Everybody listens. Here, I am very happy. I say thank you for everything."
The woman sitting next to Maria rubbed her back, another offered a tissue, and all of the women around the table nodded or murmured in agreement.
Then Freedman took the opportunity to say that it's very important to support each other and to ask for help.
"And when you say the work "help', it's also very important to pronounce the "p" at the end. Otherwise, it becomes a very different word," she said, holding up a piece of paper with the two words written on it.
Once again, smiles and laughter permeated the room, this time not as tentative or nervous.
*Names have been changed for safety.