It's only been a couple of months, but Mendon resident Mary Heers says she feels "right at home" in her new volunteer position.

As a new volunteer at the English Language Center of Cache Valley, Heers - an experienced traveler and veteran educator - said she's forgotten how difficult it is to learn a language from scratch but has found beauty in watching the students learn.

"I don't think people are ever so beautiful as when they're trying 100 percent," she said. "It's a huge effort (they're putting out); you just want to help."

Heers is one of dozens of volunteers at the Logan organization, which aims to provide a structured learning environment for those in Cache Valley wanting to learn English. Last year alone, more than 1,300 students took classes through the ELC, said co-director Katie Jensen.

Heers, one of what will be about 250 volunteers over the course of a year, heard of the volunteer opportunity through a friend. After 16 years of teaching at Preston High School and another six at Utah State University, she jumped at the chance to be involved in a classroom again.

Twice a week, Heers visits the English Language Center to volunteer during entry-level classes. She's also started helping another student study for the GED.

Watching people learn has reminded her of what it's like to live among those who speak a different language than your own.

"I think I've forgotten how much work it was to start at the very beginning of a language," she said.

Although the ELC values every volunteer, Jensen said Heers has been unique due to her experience both internationally and in the classroom.

"We love her already," she said. "The thing that I noticed first was her excitement for education and for helping people learn. She's already so dedicated."

Inside the ELC, there are up to 20 students in each class. One teacher can struggle to help every person as they need assistance. That's where the volunteers come in.

Like other volunteers, Heers meanders around the room, watching the work as students make their way through the handbook. She helps if needed - or points out a mistake if she sees one.

"If you learn it wrong, it's twice as hard to learn it (right)," she said.

Jensen said volunteers are necessary at the ELC for several reasons.

"Without them, we could not do what we do," she said. "Their service in the classroom means our student to teacher ratio is very good."

While some volunteers are Utah State University students who serve for just one semester, others stay on for years.

Heers' background is expansive. Her father worked for the American Embassy, and she was born in Rome. As a child, her family moved around Europe, and she eventually returned to Rome for high school. In the 1960s she left Europe to attend Stanford University, where she met her husband.

Although the Heers eventually settled in Cache Valley with their two children, Mary hasn't stayed put for too long. Among her travels are trips to Warsaw, Poland, in 1992 for a one-year Fulbright teaching scholarship; summers at Oxford, where she obtained a master's degree in English through Middlebury College in Vermont; and most recently, trips to Peru and China for service and educational study.

Considering her global background, the volunteer work at the English Language Center was particularly attractive.

"The idea of an international connection really appealed to me," she said.

Classes at the ELC are a mix of cultures and languages - many speak Spanish, but there are a handful of Cambodians, Burmese and others from Southeast Asia. Heers said she was able to make an immediate connection with one student from Eritrea, a small Greek city, when she mentioned she'd been there.

She thinks her experience living among other cultures combined with more than two decades of working in a classroom help her during the ELC volunteer work.

"What really helps me is I know how to slow it down, speak clearly and not use slang," she said. Having been on "the other side of the fence," she knows how difficult it can be to learn a language when slang or obscure references are immediately thrown into the equation.

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E-mail:

ewheeler@hjnews.com

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