Understanding the main language where you live is something many people take for granted. If you don’t understand it, day-to-day activities and finding work can be difficult. In Sioux Falls, the nonprofit organization Reach works to help people improve their literacy.

Both Sara Berhe and Ayantu Tefera work for Avera, but these friends have more than that in common. They live in Sioux Falls but are each from Ethiopia, and both are participating in this Reach program for the same reason.

“I need to improve my English,” Tefera said.

“Because I just need to more learn English,” Berhe said.

A language barrier can be a lot more than just frustrating.

“Some people, they don’t understand me, when I go the office or when I need to make appointment, so I just need to make sure more English to learn,” Berhe said.

Every participant here works at Avera. It’s a twice-weekly program lasting nine weeks, and this is its first year. Kim Kersbergen, one of the tutors, says they teach learners how to write and speak English. 

“We do both,” Kersbergen said. “We try and read and write in every lesson because that kind of meshes the skills better.”

“We have lots of employees that English is not their first language, and as we were looking at how do we work with our employees to make them more successful for not only the job that they’re in, but maybe potential growth for other opportunities, we started a relationship, a discussion with the Reach individuals,” Avera Human Resources Officer Lynne Hagen said.

Kersbergen is a retired special education teacher. 

“Once a teacher always a teacher, I think, and it’s nice to be able to keep my skills going in preparing lesson plans and figuring out what their needs are and seeing them respond,” Kersbergen said.

Like in so many other classrooms, the students end up teaching the teacher.

“I’ll say the word in English, then I get to hear it in Spanish, then I get to hear it in the African languages, and we are all learning at the same time,” Kersbergen said.

Similarly, lessons learned here don’t just help employees.

“Yes, it might ultimately help Avera, but it is, we see it as an investment in our employees,” Hagen said.

Literacy means economic possibilities.

“At our first session I asked them what they hoped to get out of doing this, and they all said, a better job,” Kersbergen said. “Because most of them are working at housekeeping, working in the kitchen, places like that. They want a better job, and they know that reading and writing is going to do that for them.”

“Our goal is that as an employee develops their literacy skills, they have opportunities to look at other positions, other professional positions within the organization, and maybe apply and be selected,” Hagen said.

The employees here aren’t just opening doors for themselves.

“It’s very interesting,” Kersbergen said. “It opens your eyes as to how culturally diverse Sioux Falls is.”

And the people who live here need the language for a lot more than their job.

“We want our employees to be the best employee they can be, but we also want them to be a great citizen, and be able to effectively communicate, whether they’re at the doctor, whether they’re at the grocery store, whatever environment,” Hagen said.

One lesson at a time, they’ll get there. Reach’s program isn’t unique to Avera; they also have one at Sanford. For a closer look at Reach, visit their website here