YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – For many people whose first language isn’t English, it can be hard to adjust to life or find a job in an English-speaking country.
But here in the Valley, there’s a place people can go to learn English for free and it has been helping change lives for more than 100 years.
“It is the best-kept secret in Youngstown, I believe,” said teacher Mary Toepfer.
The English Center on Youngstown’s north side is a non-profit charitable organization that currently teaches English to 90 people from across 25 different countries… and its all for free.
“They come to this country with a wealth of knowledge and experiences and they just want to be productive members of our society,” Toepfer said.
There are six levels, starting with a basic foundations course and leading up to levels five and six. That is where students prepare to take graduate entrance exams, citizenship tests and anything else that requires advanced English-speaking skills.
“My goal is to get a job, actually, a good job,” said student Hyun Jung Kim.
Hyun Jung Kim is from South Korea but has been living in Girard for more than two years. She has a master’s degree in accounting in South Korea but now she wants to use her skills here.
“I’m here to learn my English reading and writing and listening and speaking, especially speaking,” she said.
For Gaukhar Chagirova, who is from Kazakhstan, she wants to take the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) test to study at Youngstown State University, where her husband is in a graduate program.
The English Center is helping her get there.
“I feel very thankful because they give me not only the feeling of just teaching, they give me feelings that they really want to help me,” Chagirova said. “They love me and they kind of my family.”
Teachers like Toepfer and Carolyn Leonard get emotional thinking about how hard their students work.
“I tell them all the time how brave they are because it’s a very daunting experience to learn a foreign language,” Leonard said, who also directs The English Center.
“They are so excited to be here,” Toepfer said.
“I am here only with my husband and all my family in Kazakhstan and all my friends and they become my real friends and family,” Chagirova said.
The English Center started in 1918 and has been welcoming any and all learners into their space since.
“It’s just amazing that people from different countries who have never met each other before, they have a common goal of learning English together and they will help each other,” Leonard said.
“You can yearn for a better life, you can yearn for the American dream and it is within reach. You just need to take that step forward,” Toepfer said.
Because the center is a non-profit charitable organization, it relies heavily on donations and support from the community.
If you wish to help The English Center, donations can be sent to 1119 Elm Street, Youngstown, Ohio 44505, where the center is located.