Marblehead’s Kennedy finds joy in meeting immigrants’ demand for English language skills

Christine McCarriston
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About 16 years ago, Trish Kennedy saw a notice in the Star of the Sea Church bulletin seeking volunteers to teach English to adults for Catholic Charities North. She answered the call and was so impressed by the program she went from being a volunteer to a lead teacher, program coordinator and finally the English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program manager, a position she has held since 2018. 

“I wake up every morning so happy to go to work,” Kennedy said. “My heart leaps.”

Trish Kennedy of Marblehead, center, teaches an adult English class at Catholic Charities North. Kennedy started as a volunteer in 2007 when she answered a Star of the Sea Church bulletin notice and is now the English Speakers of Other Languages program manager. COURTESY PHOTO

The happiness comes from the collaboration with her coworkers in the Lynn and Salem offices of Catholic Charities North and the interactions with her students.

“At Catholic Charities, we all work together to help,” she explained. “We can direct people to health, housing and job resources. The whole team works together to serve the whole individual.”

The agency will also help clients through paperwork and bureaucracy that can be challenging. 

The students are the key to Kennedy’s professional joy. She finds the people seeking to learn English willing to put in the work and then leaving with pride after learning the language of their new home.

“As they trust us more, they tell us more,” she said.

And when they divulge more, Kennedy and her coworkers are there to help more.

As with most everything, the COVID pandemic changed the way Kennedy and Catholic Charities met the needs of their clients. Zoom was an adequate substitute for in-person English classes for adult learners, but much was lost for speakers of other languages.

“There is something dynamic that happens in person,” she said, smiling. “The students laugh more, make friends and learn about the culture.”

Kennedy added that when attending classes in person, students not only learn about the culture of America but each other’s cultures, too. Kennedy spoke of students who realize that some of their peers, like those who speak Arabic, are not just learning a new language but a new alphabet, too.

“There is mutual respect,” she said.

Some readers may recognize Kennedy from Marblehead High School, where she was a member of the lunch staff from 2004 to 2011 and a special education paraprofessional after that. Others may know her as their or their child’s religious education teacher at Star of the Sea, where she volunteered for about 10 years.

Kennedy said she “loved those jobs” but is very grateful for her current job.

“There was a student from Albania who came to a Know Your Rights talk,” she recalled. “He didn’t speak or understand English, but he came to learn. He handed me a small piece of paper that said: ‘Can you help me?’ The fact that I can say ‘yes, I can’ is a gift. So many people want to help, but they don’t know how and I do. I get to help.”

In her current position as ESOL program manager, Kennedy helps write grants, plans and conducts training for volunteers, develops curriculum, attends seminars, and organizes and attends field trips with students. But her favorite part of the day is teaching English classes.

“I make sure that I teach at least one class,” she said, noting that the connection to the students is what is most important to her.

In the few years since the pandemic lockdown, Kennedy has found herself based in the Lynn office, where the need is great and continues to increase.

“Many of our students were frontline workers and still went to work during the lockdown,” she explained. “Others had children who were now at home (in 2020). We had to build the program back up. We now have almost 200 students in Lynn with 15 to 20 more showing up each week, looking for English classes.”

The clientele in Salem generally came from the Dominican Republic. Last year in Lynn, students hailed mostly from Guatemala. This year, Kennedy sees many students from Haiti and Morocco. All of them are eager to learn and work hard.

“We had one student who came knowing no English,” she said. “She came to her English class but then asked if she could come to more to observe. She came to every single class from morning until night. Three years later, she was fluent in English and spoke for herself in a public setting.”

Kennedy added that the student also got a job during that time. The self-advocacy came when she was speaking with representatives from the offices of Congressman Seth Moulton and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“The student was asked a question that someone started to answer for her, and she said politely, ‘I can speak for myself,’” Kennedy said.

Catholic Charities North is back to in-person lessons with just one advanced class held via Zoom. Kennedy works hard to place all those interested in learning English in a class but said it is getting more difficult, given the need.

Those who are not placed yet get a weekly call from Kennedy assuring them she will get them into a class eventually.

“How do you say no?” she asked. “They’ll work so hard. How do you say no?” 

Kennedy’s daughter Eileen recently created a documentary about the refugee experience in Ireland, and she finds herself echoing her daughter’s words.

“Immigrants aren’t just a group; they’re an individual with hopes, fears and dreams,” Kennedy said. “That is the most important thing to keep in mind.”

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