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VTS case study: Elsy and Sandi

By Fiona West | April 29, 2022

Elsy Marta, a mother-of-three originally from Lebanon, says participating in the Volunteer Tutor Scheme is “the best thing I’ve ever done in Sydney”.

“I came to Sydney with only ‘Yes, no, my name is Elsy and I am 30 years’ old; that’s all I knew’,” she said.

Elsy enrolled in the AMEP but the young mum found it difficult to get to classes. Wanting to read, write and speak good English for her children, Elsy found the VTS was the perfect option to continue her lessons.

Now after almost three years of tutoring with Sandi Joelson, the 38-year-old midwife passed her Australian Citizenship test “the first time, easy”, she is confident speaking with native Australians, including her son’s school teachers, and is more familiar with Australian systems and way of life.

“Sandi is the best,” Elsy said. “Whatever I need to learn she helps me, whether it is my writing or my vocabulary, we practise and she corrects me until I get to a really good level.

“Even when we call each other and chat about our lives, and I talk about the kids, she helps me with my English. She knows I want to talk properly, and I want my kids to talk properly. That is what I want.”

At 72 years of age, Sandi Joelson has long history of volunteering, in many capacities, but her current role as a VTS tutor for Elsy has been most rewarding.

“I was born in Australia but my parents were refugees from war-torn Germany, so volunteering is my way of giving something back, and ever since I was a child I’ve loved helping people,” she said.

“With Elsy she used to be nervous speaking English … but one of the comments she’s made to me is that I have given her the confidence to speak it … even if she makes mistakes, and her fluency has really improved.

“You do become friends with your student, especially after two years – we share things, she sends me lots of photos, and for birthdays, we send those online cards. In the back of it I will always correct her English, but in a way that’s helpful, you know, not in a way that condemns, so I’d say, ‘We would say it this way’, and she appreciates that.”

Sandi started tutoring Elsy face-to-face in 2019 but with the COVID lockdown they were forced online, using WhatsApp, as well as texting and phone calls. But the pair hasn’t skipped a beat. Even through Elsy’s last pregnancy and the birth of her third child, they kept up the tutoring. They covered relevant topics like vaccinations during COVID and voting in the election, but sometimes they just talk about “what they did today”.

Elsy said at the beginning the tutoring was based around topics: “Sandi would do research, let’s say for example, talking about my country, the culture and traditions, and she would send me a few questions, then I would write a paragraph and read it to her and she would correct me.”

But as time went on and Elsy improved it became more about life in Australia.

“For me now it is like talking to a friend,” Elsy said.

“I’ll tell her about my life, my family. Pretty much like it’s some someone sharing my life, my experience. I want to do this for my kids and Sandi helps me to keep getting better, and how she is doing it is from her heart.”

Sandi said she felt blessed to be able to help Elsy navigate the basics in life through the VTS. “It doesn’t matter what country or what background you’ve come from, or what terrible things you’ve gone through, we all want the same things,” Sandi said.

“We all just want to get up in the morning, look after our families … access the things that we need to access, like medical services or get on the train, and live a fairly good life. In Australia we are blessed that we don’t have wars in our country, so we just want to be able to help those people who come here to improve their English and go into the community and be able to navigate the system that makes it easier. That’s all it’s about.”

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