The Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program’s (IRWP) clients come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and dozens of other countries. While each of the women served has a different story and faces her own challenges, they all share a desire to learn. “One of our first questions when we meet them is, Why do you want to learn English?” says executive director Pat Joshu. “I’ve had several look at me and say that nobody has ever asked them that before: What do they want?”

The nonprofit was started in 1995 by Sr. Elise Silvestri under the School Sisters of Notre Dame Ministry Corporation, when she began working with several Vietnamese women, teaching them English language and practical living skills. After 10 years, IRWP had grown to become an independent 501(c)3 organization. Today, more than 90 volunteers help 100-plus immigrant women meet their goals each year—whether it’s something as simple as being able to greet their neighbors, learning enough English to get and keep a job, or passing the U.S. citizenship test.

The volunteer teachers visit their student’s home for an hour, twice a week to help them progress toward their goal. “Everything we do is in English, so somebody who has never taught before or who only knows English can still volunteer with us,” Joshu says. “Sometimes we have somebody who does speak the language, and we tell them not to let on too much because then that becomes the default. It’s really a way to immerse them in using their English.” By coming to students’ homes and providing individualized classes, the teachers can focus on things that come up in the their daily lives—from understanding a child’s report card to using a computer to fill out job applications and practicing for employment interviews.

In many cases, the classes help empower the students, as they did for one woman who was so fearful after what she’d gone through in her home country that she wouldn’t even go outside to check her mail, Joshu says. “She would wait until her adult children came to visit and they would check the mail. She was a little older and just didn’t know what was out there. Inside the apartment was safe, but going past the front door was really scary. One day, the teacher took her on a ‘field trip’ to the mailbox. And a few weeks later, they did a field trip where they walked around the block so she could see it was OK. Somebody has to be willing to take the time to do that. Because of their background and what they’ve gone through, some of the students have lived through some very scary things, but they look forward.”

For many women who rely on their children as translators, learning English can change the dynamic and help moms regain their rightful role in the family. “Frequently the kids are interpreting financial information and physician information, and sometimes that’s just not information they really want the kids to know or have to worry about,” Joshu says. “It’s a lot of pressure, but when all of the sudden Mom can do her own shopping or pay the bills, or whatever it may be, it reclaims her status.”

And while the teachers are there to help, the end goal is to teach the to become self-reliant. “If we do really well, at some point they don’t need us to be there anymore,” Joshu says. She adds that although IRWP has 93 current volunteers, there are 65 students on a waiting list. “We’re always looking for new volunteers and we’re also in need of board members.”

For more information about the Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program, call 771-1104 or visit


Volunteer Spotlight: Jean Smith

When Jean Smith retired from teaching, a friend pointed out a notice about Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program in their church bulletin and suggested getting involved. Smith took her up on the offer, and has now been volunteering for the nonprofit for 16 years, both as a teacher and a liaison in the nonprofit’s office. She has taught eight students, from Vietnam, Bosnia, the Philippines and other countries.

Working with IRWP is very different from her teaching job, she says, where she taught in a resource room for the special school district. “My first student has a little English, but not very much,” Smith says. “When I started, we had one book—a picture dictionary—so that’s’ what we worked with.” She would teach basics like the days of the week and months of the year, and while some of Smith’s students have studied for—and passed—the citizenship test, others simply want to learn to speak English better. “They feel like somebody is going to laugh at them for the way they speak, so I try to speak in their language to show them how bad I am,” she says.

And the work has always been rewarding for Smith. “I learn as much as I teach. I’ve met people who are so giving,” she says, recalling a student who used to always try to send her home with food. “For having nothing, they’re so generous. They’re wonderful people who are very ambitious.”

Smith adds that she still keeps in touch with some of her former students, including a woman from Bosnia, whose daughter was in sixth grade at the time and is now a graduate of Saint Louis University. “I see the difference that it makes in their lives,” she says. “My Vietnamese student was able to get a job. My Bosnian student actually became a citizen. I can’t explain it, but it makes you feel good. You feel like you’re helping somebody, and I think that’s what we all want to do.”