Volunteer Mary Maxwell reckons she gets more from the people she works with than they get from her.
Mary, winner of the 2019 Volunteering Waikato Excellence Awards, has volunteered at Morrinsville’s community English class for more than a decade, and she also tutors two married couples in their homes.
Mary’s a Kiwi who spent 30 years living and raising a family in the UK. She and husband Peter returned to take care of Mary’s elderly parents, but coming home wasn’t easy.
“I felt disconnected, like a stranger in my own land. I saw an ad for English Language Partners’ volunteer training course and thought ‘I can do that’.”
And she did. She also did an organic gardening course and met some new migrants. Hearing their stories encouraged her to become more involved with English Language Partners.
In 2008, Mary met Souen Kong from Cambodia. They’ve become good friends. Souen came to New Zealand with her father, brother and cousin. They’d been living in a refugee camp in Thailand, having fled Cambodia. “It was so hard at first. I didn’t even know how to use an electric oven,” Souen says. “The classes were good for me.”
There’s quite a group of Cambodians living in Morrinsville, and Mary says Souen has become an “amazing translator”. Over the years, Souen has done sewing jobs, worked in a market garden, raised a daughter and is now a grandmother.
Many students in the English class are grandparents who have joined their families in New Zealand. “Some of them are so shy,” Mary says. “But ours is a small class, usually between eight and ten people. You can make mistakes in small groups. It’s a safe space.”
Some of the children get embarrassed by their grandparents’ lack of English, Mary says. “So we get them reading children’s books that they can share, and that encourages the children to teach their grandparents. They learn together.”
Teacher Trudy Stockley has worked with Mary for six years. “Mary really helps people connect,” says Trudy. “She’s busy with other volunteer work, so her community knowledge is invaluable.”
They both encourage learners to volunteer and join in with community activities. Mary says it’s fortunate that Morrinsville, being a country town, has a lot of clubs for people to join. It’s all about getting people confident to manage their new lives in New Zealand.
“If a young mother comes to class, Mary invites her to join a local music and movement group for babies and toddlers,” says Trudy. “That way, the new mum gets to practise more English and make Kiwi friends too.”
Classes run for two hours on a Monday and are semi-structured in that there are nine subjects they cover over ten weeks, but there’s also time for the specific needs of students.
“We ask them what they want to learn. It may be how to make a doctor’s appointment, or fill out a form. We’re flexible. Nothing is set in stone.”
Trudy says Mary is a vital part of English Language Partners in Morrinsville and she’ll be sorely missed when she and Peter return to England at the end of next year to be with their children and grandchildren.
Until then, she’ll keep on volunteering. Mary says she gets more from the class than she gives.
“Our learners have so much; they have two cultures. As teachers, we give from one dimension as deeply as we can, but equally, we are learning too.
“It’s a privilege to be part of this class.”
Story Alison Robertson | Photos Michael Jeans