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Unsung Hero: Sally Connolly of Cape Elizabeth, building bridges with English in Portland

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Unsung Hero: Sally Connolly of Cape Elizabeth, building bridges with English in Portland

PORTLAND — Sally Connolly spends two hours every Monday and Wednesday morning doing what she has always loved to do: teach.

But hers is not a typical teaching situation.

Connolly’s classroom is at LearningWorks, not at a school. Her students are non-English-speaking adults, not children who grew up speaking English. And she doesn’t get paid a dime for her work.

This Cape Elizabeth resident brings valuable experience to her current position. Prior to volunteering for LearningWorks three years ago, Connolly spent over 30 years teaching in elementary schools around the country; designed curriculum and supervised instructors of students in grades pre-K through college for Sylvan Learning Center; mentored Portland High School students for the Portland Mentoring Alliance, and worked with MaineCare to enhance language and pre-reading abilities of preschoolers as a Born to Read volunteer.

Connolly honed her skills working with diverse populations through internships, while pursuing a master's degree in social work at the University of New England. She initiated community multicultural dinners and researched increasing family involvement with public schools for the Westbrook Children’s Project; she investigated career classes for clients whose first language was not English for Portland Refugee Services, and she increased attendance of non-English-speaking parents at teacher conferences while interning with the Multilingual/Multicultural Center of Portland Public Schools. She also facilitated The Sisterhood, a multicultural girls group at Deering High School.

At LearningWorks, Connolly's class typically includes 10-12 adults who are seeking asylum in the United States; most of them come from African countries. Adults seeking asylum have to be in the U.S. for five months before they can get a job, so Connolly’s students face obstacles that extend well beyond learning the language.

“My students were highly educated and had a lot of prestige back in their home country,” Connolly said, “but they have no prestige in the United States. Often they were simply trying to promote peace, and the government felt threatened, thereby prompting the need to leave the country.”

Connolly brings all of her considerable skills to bear on teaching English to these adults. She prepares two hours for each class and, she said, “I pour my heart and soul into this class. I’m strict in class. I tell the students that it’s critical to learn to speak and write English well if they want to succeed in this country.”

Connolly’s job is multi-dimensional. In addition to knowing how to teach English, she serves as a counselor to people who are dealing with loneliness while they learn about another culture and navigate the legal system.

Connolly freely spends her time and energy at LearningWorks because the stakes are so high for the students she serves.

“These are human beings in my class. They deserve to live a good life," she said. "If I can help them do that, then that’s a sufficient reward for me.”