Acton-Boxborough United Way and Community Volunteers Create a Model English Language Program for Shelters

Acton-Boxborough United Way and Community Volunteers Create a Model English Language Program for Shelters

Since February 2024, local community volunteers have been teaching English at the Acton Emergency Family Shelter at the Minuteman Inn on Route 2.  These volunteer-driven English Language (EL) classes are now held up as a model for other shelters.  Community Action for Refugee Emergency (CARE) is planning to apply the same method for shelters in multiple hotels in Woburn!

The Acton shelter opened at the end of November 2023, all rooms are now fully occupied. There are 26 families - 88 people from which about 50 are children ages newborn to high school.  46% are Haitian Creole speaking, 27% are Spanish speaking, 27% are local English speaking families. Families will move out when they find a job (after they get their work permit) and housing, and then new families will move in.

Piña Madera, Acton resident and Spanish teacher at the Francis W. Parker Charter School, volunteered to train the volunteer teachers and oversee the EL program.  Acton-Boxborough United way does the coordination for this EL program, as well as coordinating children’s activities at the Acton shelter and all community donations.  More information on donations needed can be found here, and on volunteering opportunities on - click on “volunteer now” and search by “shelter” .

The program aims to meet the needs of a changing and varied population of mostly adult students, and is intentionally flexible in topics and scheduling.  Classes welcome all learners, including children and babies. 

Classes are onsite and meet 5 days per week, run by 2 volunteers each time.  Classes are energetic, interactive, and prioritize useful phrases and repetition of key words over teaching grammar.  Students engage in games, songs, role-playing activities and plenty of movement. If a student misses a day, they will not be left behind, and can comfortably return as soon as they can.  

The students are so eager to participate, typically  8-10 adult students and some kids, led by 2 instructors each day.  Volunteers sign up for shifts each week, and stay connected by entering information about each class on an online log used for planning purposes.

Topics are adapted to the needs, interest and level of the students, and based on input from the shelter manager and the case workers.   Students help each other (in the beginning also often with translating instructions). There’s so much laughter, connection, dancing  and smiles!  Even the kids happily join whenever they are not in school, bringing even more enthusiasm and joy!  It is so rewarding when we hear from the shelter staff “The EL students now proudly greet us in English, and try to answer our questions in English whenever they can, even though we do speak their native language!!  It’s amazing to see.”  

A second round of training for new volunteer teachers is scheduled for April 28 from 3:30 - 5:30 in West Acton.  Interested in joining the fun? Find more information here.  No previous experience necessary!


Article by ABUW Board Chair Carol Buysse, April 2024