By: Marco Notaro
As Buffalo’s oldest religious institution, First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo boasts a long and proud history. Seated in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood at Symphony Circle, the church with its distinct 168-foot tower has stood as a beacon of hope on Buffalo’s West Side for over a century. During its two centuries of existence, the church has developed a proud tradition of service to the local community. Today, the church continues its long legacy of service to the community by hosting a free adult literacy program for immigrants and refugees.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday from 4:30pm to 6:00pm, the church’s chapel fills with immigrants and refugees from countries like Burma, Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Iraq and the Congo. These immigrants come to the Church to work with volunteer tutors to learn English and improve their reading, writing or speaking skills. All tutors are trained through Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara and work with students individually or in small groups.
Students come into the program with a wide range of needs. Some who are new to the United States are just learning how to speak English while others who have been in the U.S. longer want to improve their English or reading to get a better job or pass the exam for citizenship. The ability to work with students one-on-one or in small groups allows the church to offer a more individualized education that can best meet the differing needs of students.
The program at First Presbyterian Church originated almost fifteen years ago when leaders of Buffalo’s Sudanese Community approached then Church Minister Geri Lyon about setting up a English program for the Sudanese women in the community. The church partnered with the Sudanese leaders to begin the program as a Drop In Center, a walk-in tutoring site for anyone wishing to learn English.
Over the next fifteen years, the program would evolve and take many different forms. But through all the changes, the commitment to help Buffalo’s immigrant community was always the constant. “Every refugee group that came into the lower west side during that time, we had a student from” said Ellen Henry, who managed the program for almost a decade. “We had students from Myanmar, Congo, Uganda, Sudan, Somalia, even Egypt, whoever was there, we always helped.”
Today, the program has transitioned and come under the guidance of Literacy New York Buffalo-Niagara. The organization took over leadership of the program in September and through support from the John R. Oishei Foundation and the TEGNA Foundation, is able to provide an AmeriCorps VISTA to oversee and manage the program. The program is beloved by its group of loyal students like Koffi Okouta, a former refugee from Togo. Mr. Okouta has attended the program since 2015, becoming one of the program’s regular attendees. When asked why he attends every week, Mr. Okouta said he attends because “I like getting help practicing having conversations and hearing people speak English so I can be familiar with the pronunciation of words and improve my own English.”
Over the past fifteen years, the program has changed in many ways but through every different incarnation, it has always maintained its steadfast commitment to helping Buffalo’s immigrants and refugees. “We’ve come this far by faith” says Elizabeth Kamke, who co-managed the program with Henry for many years and continues to serve as a volunteer tutor. “We believed in it and it kept taking a different shape and every time we said we’re just going to keep going.”
The program is currently accepting new students looking for help with both learning English and also studying for citizenship. The program runs every Tuesday and Wednesday from 4:30pm-6:00pm at First Presbyterian Church of Buffalo (1 Symphony Circle, Buffalo, NY 14201). Those interested in attending can come at those times or call 716-876-8991.