Like many college students, Mallory Fix worked her way through school. But the hours she spent as a runner at Garces Trading Co. paid off in another way – it inspired her to begin an English language program designed to help immigrants working at restaurants.
After beginning in January as a pilot program, English for the Restaurant and Everyday Living is now supported by The Garces Family Foundation, started by Iron Chef restaurateur Jose Garces and his wife Dr. Beatriz Garces to serve Philadelphia’s immigrants, and has expanded to its own home in South Philadelphia.
“It’s been exhausting, but it’s been great,” said Fix, who earned a master’s degree in education in 2011.
The program offers classes in both language and content – everything from verbs to sanitation demonstrations.
“Classes are designed to help students better their job prospects but also to connect with their communities giving them the confidence to feel welcomed in a variety of settings,” Fix said.
It was while studying in the TESOL program and thinking about why communication breakdowns happen that Fix said she realized “what we’re talking about in class, I’m actually seeing.”
So far, more than 40 students from more than 20 different restaurants have enrolled in the classes, which are offered twice weekly in eight-week sessions for a nominal fee. There are also special events, such as restaurant demonstrations. Classes are small and a host of volunteers help with teaching and planning.
Although the program isn’t limited to Spanish-speakers, current students are all Spanish speakers and nearly all are Mexican immigrants.
On a recent morning, Fix reviewed a lesson with six students in the South Philadelphia office, a bright and airy storefront on Passyunk Avenue. On the walls were charts of prepositions, pronouns, colors, measurements and kitchen-related verbs.
As she elicited answers from the students, Fix, who is also an adjunct professor in the College of Education at Temple and a lecturer in the University of Pennsylvania’s English language program, switched easily between English and Spanish.
“You can take the question and turn it around and use it in your answer,” Fix said as she explained a question.
Freddy Perez, who works as a busser in a Center City restaurant and is a new student in the class, listened attentively.
“The class helps me talk to other people and meet new people,” Perez said, who emigrated from Guatemala to the United States three years ago. “I like the class because I understand more and I have great teachers.”
Another student, Maria Lopez, works as a prep chef and began taking classes in February. The class, Lopez said, helps her communicate better at work.
“[I like it] when we talk and write,” she said.
Fix said goals for the program include expanding to increase the number of students and developing into a model program of language and community building.
One aspect of this has already begun in the addition of Temple TESOL students who work as volunteer teachers.
“We’d like to make this like a training ground,” Fix said.
A.E. Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org