A sense of normalcy

The English as a Second Language teachers at the St. Jude School Program by Chili’s help Spanish-speaking patients and their families ease into life at St. Jude.

N – O – R – M – A – L – C – Y

For younger students or for those with limited knowledge of the English language, it’s a challenging vocabulary word. For many patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, though, “normalcy” is what the St. Jude School Program by Chili’s offers every day.

St. Jude School Program by Chili's teacher Tracy Long

St. Jude School Program by Chili's ESL teacher Tracy Long

The St. Jude School is a nationally accredited, K – 12 school that allows patients to continue their education while undergoing treatment and then eases their transition back to their community schools. St. Jude treats children from all 50 states and from around the world, and some of those patients don’t speak English well, if at all. For those students, there are Tracy Long and Lindsey Smith, teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL).

When a patient family moves to Memphis for treatment, explained Smith, “they don’t know what they’re going to do as a parent with their job and their life, and all of a sudden they’re here with their child, and they don’t really have the resources to deal with school. That’s where we step in. We’ll be the liaison between them and their school."

St. Jude School Program by Chili's ESL teacher Lindsey Smith

St. Jude School Program by Chili's ESL teacher Lindsey Smith

But when the parents don’t speak any English, and the patient speaks little to no English, anxiety can be heightened. “When a nurse walks in your room and you don’t speak the language, you want to know how to answer, ‘What’s your name?’” said Smith. “All those questions they start throwing at you, you have no idea what’s going on as a kid.”

In the midst of a family’s most traumatic time, something as simple as learning to interpret “What is your name?” helps keep these St. Jude kids rooted in everyday life. Conjugating a verb helps keep them anchored to their peers back home.

Long began with St. Jude as a volunteer interpreter in 2008, going on to teach at the school two years later. Smith has traveled the globe as a teacher and interpreter and has been with St. Jude since January. Both are fluent in Spanish and both say that their dream would be a third ESL teacher who is multilingual. Spanish-speaking children make up 90 to 95 percent of their ESL students, but there is an increasing need for Arabic and Mandarin Chinese speakers.

Families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.

 

“Some people have a propensity to learn languages, and you see that in these kids, too,” Long said. “Some of them just pick it up and run with it; that’s just an innate ability. So it’s not a cookie-cutter situation here. We might get a child from Africa who is 6 years old or we might get an 18-year-old from Guatemala. We have students from South America and they’re going back to a bilingual school. That’s what we’re preparing them for. We’ll teach half in English and half in Spanish, and we’re going to allow you to go back to your school and hopefully get you the credits you need to graduate.”

Through the accreditation, students are required to have three hours of instruction per week. Enrollment numbers for the ESL program fluctuate, but Long and Smith currently see about 25 students between them. There is little structure compared with a typical public school — the priority is on the patient’s health, so lessons are tailored to the schedule of treatment and are more similar to private instruction. Long likens her day to a puzzle. “I look at each patient’s chart, each patient’s schedule, look for windows of time when I can meet with them,” she said. Teachers visit inpatient rooms, they garb up in isolation clothing if needed and even drive across town to Target House, St. Jude’s long-term housing facility for patient families. “I always tell them, ‘Wherever you are, I’ll find you,’” she continued.

It is so exciting to get to see patients and families reclaim their lives. We build relationships through one-on-one instruction. You can’t help but get close to them ... you struggle with them, and you cry with them, and you love them.

St. Jude School Program by Chili's ESL teacher Tracy Long

For Long and Smith, their positions offer something more than the profession’s typical rewards. They have friends around the world, and graduation often means a new chance at life. “It is so exciting to get to see patients and families reclaim their lives,” said Long. “We build relationships through one-on-one instruction. You can’t help but get close to them, just the nature of that set-up, you struggle with them and you cry with them and you love them.”

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