Coming to Seymour from Japan three years ago, Tomoyo Miyazaki was in unfamiliar territory.

She didn’t know anyone, and she didn’t know much about the language and culture.

Hiroe Aoyama came to Seymour around the same time and found herself in a similar situation, and she said it was very scary.

Fortunately, for them and other Japanese women, there has been an English as a Second Language class in place for seven years at Zion Lutheran Church in Seymour.

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Meeting from 9 to 11 a.m. once a week from September to May, the women are able to learn and practice English and take in American culture from local volunteers who serve as teachers.

Miyazaki said the class also has allowed her to become friends with other Japanese women.

“It was very difficult for me because I don’t know everybody, and I’m very worried about my language, so I needed to learn English,” Miyazaki said of why she became involved with the class. “They welcomed me, and they were very open-hearted ladies, very kind. The people are so helpful. It makes you feel better and very comfortable.”

Sachiko Kondo said she and the other women don’t work when they come to Seymour, so the class allows them to interact with others and learn.

“When I first came to Seymour, I was very scared about another country, but I came here and they teach us and are very kind and friendly,” she said. “They treat us like family.”

Saori Nagamine and Kayo Murashige both had lived in other states before coming to Seymour, so they had previous experience with an ESL class.

Both women said it’s great to have the opportunity to learn English so they can speak to people at other places.

“If I stay in the house, I don’t have anybody to talk to in English, I don’t have the opportunity to speak English, so that’s why I’m coming here,” Murashige said. “It’s my only opportunity to speak English.”

While Murashige said it has been nice to interact with other Japanese women, she would like to see people of other nationalities participate in the class.

“I hope the people from other countries would come here to join us,” she said.

Darlene Cooley has been a teacher with the program since its inception. She said it started when Zion Lutheran Church was contacted by the pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus.

At the time, there was a group of Japanese women who lived in Seymour and traveled to Columbus for an ESL class. They were here while their husbands worked at Aisin or Seymour Tubing.

The pastor thought it would be good to start a class in Seymour so the women wouldn’t haven’t have to travel back and forth.

The class started with a handful of women and has grown to as many as 30. This year’s group consisted of around 20 women.

The cost to attend the class is $60. At first, that covered the cost of a workbook to use in the class. But that workbook isn’t used anymore, so the money is used for trips and other class activities.

Cooley and Maggie Schneider were the teachers of the class at the beginning. Both had around 20 years of experience teaching at local schools.

Neither of them knew how to speak Japanese, but that wasn’t really necessary because most of the women knew some English.

“Anyone can work in ESL. I think that you just have to be able to present the English to them,” Cooley said.

“Most of them have had English from about junior high on in their schools,” Schneider said. “Most of them have had approximately six years of English before they came to our class, at least the first ones. Most of these ladies speak English fairly well.”

The teachers follow a curriculum based on what the women want to know.

They usually divide up so each of the teachers can work with a small group of women.

“We give them journals and we ask them to write in their journals what they have done that week, and then we come back and we help them with questions about school or if they are having trouble with understanding how to do something at their school or at their doctor or how to make phone calls,” Cooley said.

While language is a focus of the class, more emphasis is put on learning culture.

“They are wanting to learn more. They are here to learn our ways,” Schneider said.

“They are very interested in what we do as Americans in our homes, what do you do for holidays, what do you do with your children,” Cooley said. “They don’t have some of the same holidays that we do, especially the Christian holidays, like Easter.”

Occasionally, time is spent outside the classroom so the women can visit sites in the area.

“It’s a really good feeling to be able to share what we have here in in Jackson County,” Cooley said. “That’s what they want to know. They want to know what it’s like to live here.”

Once a month, the group also participates in Bible study.

“My purpose also was to be able to share the Gospel with them,” Cooley said. “The Japanese ladies, they are not Christian, so they don’t know anything about the Bible or Christianity.”

Schneider said it’s interesting to see a difference in the women as they progress in the class.

“We have many Japanese ladies that were very shy when they first came, and then you get to know their personalities, and it is a joy to see them changing and becoming excited about coming back to class every Wednesday, whether it’s learning the English in our classes or American culture,” she said.

Zion also offers child care while the women attend class. In the past few years, Schneider has transitioned to work with the children. A couple of Japanese women also help with the child care.

“We do not teach the kids. It’s more like a time for them to play,” Schneider said. “We play with them, and we have on the songs, and they love to do that. They have a great time together.”

The Japanese women stay in Seymour for different lengths of time based on how long their husbands are here working. That typically is anywhere from one to four years.

Cooley said it’s never easy when she has to say goodbye.

“We get to know them very well,” she said. “I have gained some real close friends, I’ve gained the friendship and I know them as persons because I become real close to them, and it’s extremely sad when they leave, it really is.”

When those women return to Japan, many of them stay friends with others they have met while living in Seymour.

“Whenever they go back to Japan, those are the same friends that they are going to keep when they go back,” Schneider said. “They are friendships that are going to last forever.”

Schneider said she and some of the other teachers are planning to go to Japan next spring to visit with women who have been in the class.

“We’re trying to make arrangements with many of the ladies that have gone back so we can spend maybe at least 10 days there and be with them,” she said.

For the teachers, it’s satisfying to knowing they have made an impact on the Japanese women.

“It’s just awesome,” Cooley said. “It’s so nice to be able to see them keep coming week after week and to feel like they enjoy it.”

It’s a good learning experience for the teachers, too.

“We have learned so much about their culture,” Schneider said. “We’ve learned a lot from the Japanese ladies.”

At a glance

Volunteers who serve as teachers with the English as a Second Language class at Zion Lutheran Church in Seymour or oversee child care for the program are Darlene Cooley, Maggie Schneider, Ruth Ann Rebber, Mae Krumme, Cheryl Vierling, Bea Hercamp, Mike Read, Yoko Huff and Takako Hirose.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.