Library and Lions reach out to Latinos

JO ANN KIRKLAND PHOTO | Two students at the Shelter Island Public Library improving their English language skills with teacher Bryan Knipfing.

Gabriela and Guillermo, born and raised in Medellin, Colombia, have been on Shelter Island for six months. On Thursday nights after work, they can be found at the Shelter Island Library improving their English language skills. The rest of the week they’re practicing what they’ve learned in class and preparing for new lessons in the next class.

It’s all part of a program launched this year by the library and the Shelter Island Lions Club to improve outreach to the Latino community. Clases de Inglés Para Adultos is designed to serve the adult Latino community as it does in other East End communities. But as it has developed here, some younger faces have appeared, with parents bringing their children to the class while others sit them down in front of computers or with books while they concentrate on their language skills.

“We’re very lenient,” Library Director Denise DiPaolo said. What’s important to her and her staff is that the program reach a significant part of the community that has been under-served. Ms. DiPaolo said she’s also ensuring that all participants get a library card so that using its materials and services can be an ongoing experience.

The idea for classes surfaced several months ago, but there was no money in the library’s budget to launch the program until Ms. DiPaolo and Lions Club member Ken Pysher put their heads together. The club had also been talking about ways to reach out to the Latino community, so there was a rapid meeting of minds when the two talked about launching the program. What the Lions could do was offer money to pay for work books and a small honorarium for a teacher.

The next step was to identify someone capable of teaching the class.

“Bryan just dropped out of the sky,” Mr. Pysher said, on finding the perfect person.

Bryan Knipfing, assistant director of Camp Quinipet, is finishing a master’s degree at St. John’s University in teaching English as a second language. When Lions Club member Lisa Shaw heard about Bryan’s studies, it was a done deal.

In October, about a dozen Spanish-speaking students showed up for the first class, which is offered without charge.

Numbers have varied week to week, Ms. DiPaolo said, but there are usually about 10 students —  mostly adults — at the Thursday night classes. At one class recently, with Mr. Knipfing’s gentle prodding, the students were learning about similarities among the use of verbs to change statements from present to past and future tenses and when to use “a” before a noun and when to use “an” before other nouns. The students were eager to learn, volunteering without hesitation to try out new skills

“My philosophy of education is that all students want to and can learn,” Mr. Knipfing said. He sees his job as creating an atmosphere where students “feel safe to take risks. It’s important to create a learning environment that is fun and engaging for my students in order to increase their interest and motivation.”

He’s impressed with how hard the students are working and the progress they’re making.

“They inspire me to continue with my efforts to learn Spanish,” he said. His goal for the program is to help his students “feel a greater connection to the community” and enhance their confidence, empowering them at their jobs and in other aspects of their lives.

In his conversations with his students about their lives, they’ve told him they feel fortunate to live on Shelter Island, a place of beauty, safety and peace where people are friendly.