‘English as Second Language’ taught at Antioch’s Whispering Hills complex

Reuben Collado

Refugees living in Brookside Properties’ Whispering Hills Apartments in Antioch now have an opportunity to work on their English-language skills without having to drive (or walk) great distances.

Thanks to site manager Reuben Collado and his associates, space at the 158-unit McMurray Drive complex has been repurposed as an ESL room for residents. Catholic Charities of Tennessee provides the ESL teaching resources through its Refugee Services department.

“We try to have classes as close to where refugees live, as possible,” said Karlene Polk, Refugee English Coordinator for Catholic Charities of Tennessee. “Most do not have transportation and must walk to class. Having space available in an apartment complex is the best possible option for a program like this.”

Collado has been at Whispering Hills for about seven months. One day, a few months into his tenure, he noticed several of the residents walking away from the complex in the cold. He asked one of his staff members where the residents were going and was told that they were walking to ESL classes.

A walk from Whispering Hills to the Nolensville Road-McMurray Drive intersection is not safe.  Walkers deal with a steady flow of traffic and limited sidewalk access.

Collado was moved to action as he had benefited from ESL classes early in his life. While he was born in New York City’s Queens Borough, his parents moved back to Puerto Rico when he was an infant. As a result, as he began to talk, his primary language was Spanish.

Fast forward 12 years, and his family, now including a brother two years younger, moved back to New York City, settling in Coney Island. Reuben had a challenge facing him as he enrolled at Shell Bank Junior High School as a 6th grader. The class subjects were significant and, for the most part, he did not understand the material, since it was taught in English.

That is when ‘Mrs. G.’ came into Reuben’s life as the instructor for his English as a Second Language (ESL) class.

“She was sweet and patient,” he said. “One time, she took our class to Broadway to see Cats when it was a popular play. She would sing ‘Memories’ to our class all the time. I thought of Mrs. G. and how much her ESL classes meant to me. I wanted to see if I could help others.”

In looking around Whispering Hills, he noticed some space that wasn’t necessarily needed for its then current use. He put together an idea, which he presented to his management and, ultimately, the complex’s owners. “Maybe [the idea] was from God,” Collado said. “In a heartbeat, everyone said ‘Yes!’”

It took several months to get the space ready, but in mid-March, Catholic Charities conducted its first ESL session at Whispering Hills. “I am very surprised it has happened,” he said. “It brings a smile to my face.”

“Our Health Navigator, Jennifer Clark, has already used the space for one of the health presentations that is required for each new refugee family,” said Karlene Polk. “An employment workshop is planned for mid-April. The convenience of this location is great. Learning English is a critical factor for refugees as they work to become self-sufficient in the U.S.”

About 15 Catholic Charities clients have participated in the ESL sessions so far. More will be added as more refugee clients move into the Whispering Hills Apartments. Collado estimated that the space is used 3-4 times per week for 3-4 hours a day.