Archive for Monday, May 11, 1998

AS SMALL WORLD TURNS 30, LOCAL WOMEN LOOK TO FUTURE

May 11, 1998

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For three decades, a volunteer English language school has helped foreign women adjust to life in Lawrence

It's still a Small World.

Thirty years after it began, Small World, a volunteer English language school in Lawrence, is still teaching.

At a 30th anniversary celebration Thursday, women in saris, kimonos and silk head scarves displayed information about their home countries. Flags and food from Germany, El Salvador, Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Iran decorated the walls as guests ate sushi, rice rolls, empanadas and cookies.

As students displayed items from their homes, two of the founding members of the program looked over their work. Neither Hilda Enoch nor Mavis Wiseman has been involved in the program for years now, but they were part of the group that brought the school into being.

Foreign stay

In the late '60s, several Kansas University professors went to Cumana, Venezuela, as part of an exchange program to help the Universidad de Oriente set up American-style programs for science and math students. The professors and their families spent up to two years in Venezuela, living near the university.

Enoch and Wiseman's husbands went on the exchange. Though the Wisemans only spent a summer in Venezuela, the Enochs spent almost two years.

``It's not like being a tourist,'' Enoch said, ``where you're just there for a few days.''

She and the other professors' wives experienced living in the community. She said they had trouble interacting; their Spanish was broken.

``We all had small children,'' she said. ``We all experienced first-hand how hard it is.''

Getting off the ground

When Enoch returned to Lawrence, she visited the Venezuelan professors' wives she had met who were then on exchange at KU.

``We found that they were totally isolated,'' she said. Enoch said many of the women didn't drive and didn't speak English. They hardly left their homes.

``We knew how really miserable they were,'' Enoch said, ``in their tiny apartments with the kids screaming at them and not knowing where to go.''

She and three other wives who had been on the exchange, Wiseman, Mimi Montgomery and Georgiana Torres, along with Catherine Weinaug, decided to do something about it. In October 1967 they began to organize a program to teach the women English and help them assimilate.

The group decided to offer a nursery school to encourage more volunteers and students to participate.

``You can't just get the women without getting the children,'' Enoch said.

She said that day care was almost unheard of at the time, and there were few nursery schools. More important, there were many educated women staying at home with their children.

``We had the advantage of a lot of talented women with no creative outlet,'' Enoch said.

Small World offered that outlet and a nursery school for their children, free.

Enoch and the others weren't prepared for the response they got.

``We thought we would have one room of kids and one room of women, and help with English language,'' she said.

Instead, they found 60 students and more than 40 volunteers lined up to help out.

Wiseman arranged for classes to meet at her church, First Presbyterian, and Small World started classes on Feb. 9, 1968.

Early classes

By May 1968, the program involved 112 foreign women and volunteers and 89 of their children.

``We had just a bare-bones budget,'' Wiseman said. The school' s 1968-69 proposed expenses were $940, covering nursery supplies, toys, office supplies, food, teaching aids and janitorial services.

The proposed budget also listed $414 of income from tuition -- 15 cents a session per mother.

The school also had to overcome transportation problems. Most of the foreign women living in Lawrence didn't drive, so the group had to come up with an elaborate car-pooling system to make sure everyone made it to class.

``The women from the culture themselves would advise us,'' Wiseman said.

She would tell the directors what they needed to know and what they wanted to learn. Enoch said much of what Small World taught in its early years was basic survival skills.

``What we wanted to do was emphasize what was enough to get along with,'' she said. The classes were practical, she said; they covered currency, food and basic English.

Wiseman said she remembered helping one Middle Eastern woman with a sick child read the instructions on a prescription. She spread out the pills, showing the mother where the hands on the clock needed to be for each one to be taken.

Classes toured supermarkets, laundromats and hospitals. They took field trips to the county health department to get needed shots.

Some women spoke no English; others spoke only in broken sentences.

``We would go to the library and get beginning readers for people who were illiterate in their own language,'' Wiseman said.

Classes met three times a week -- twice a week for beginners, and once a week for the advanced class.

Enoch said that everyone benefited from the program.

``Nobody at the end of that first year felt they had given more than they got,'' she said.

Threat to the program

Small World's biggest challenge in its 30 years, Wiseman and Enoch said, was the return of women to the workforce.

When the program was new, Small World had a waiting list of volunteers. But in the mid-'80s, the program was in trouble.

Wiseman said that as the women's movement gained momentum, there were fewer and fewer American volunteers.

``There was lots of turnover, but the Lord somehow provided enough help to get the job done,'' she said. ``I think that Kathy Mulinazzi has kept the organization alive. She's been really dedicated.''

Mulinazzi, Small World's director, said that the program needed to be restructured, eliminating officers.

``We had women who said they would give time, but didn't want responsibility,'' she said.

The president's position was replaced by a director, giving the program continuity. The organization found new sources of volunteers --including KU students and retired women.

``I think that the main thing is to make the program change with the needs of the people,'' Mulinazzi said.

Thirty years later

Today, volunteers are of all different ages. The women who come to this country tend to be more educated and speak more English than 30 years ago. But Mulinazzi says Small World still fills a need.

``We try to focus on those different areas where people may need help,'' Mulinazzi said.

Small World meets twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and teaches five different English classes now. Many of the women just need pronunciation help and practice with conversational English.

Now 150 students, children and volunteers are involved in Small World. Small World is still a volunteer organization-- a semester's operating budget is only about $1,000 for the program. Women pay $10 a semester for tuition and buy their own textbooks. Children attend the nursery school for $5 a semester or $10 for two or more children.

At the 30-year celebration, Wiseman and Enoch talked about the dozens of women who made the program work, too many to name. They talked about beginnings, and credited those who came after them for keeping the program alive.

``The miracle was it did meet a need and grew on its own,'' Enoch said. ``We're not doing this for anybody, we're doing this together.''

-- Felicia Haynes' phone message number is 832-7173. Her e-mail address is fhaynes@ljworld.com.

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