You’ve probably heard us mention on-the-clock English classes for our employees. Twice a week, they step away from their sewing machines and workstations to attend class. Our classroom is led by an amazing person who is also a dear friend of mine, and today you get to hear more about her!
It is hard for me to put into words how much Eileen Zegel means to me personally. I have known her for over 23 years. She and her husband Buddy have been go-to friends for my husband and me whenever we need advice about life changes, raising kids, and faith. With over 30 years of teaching experience, she is a wealth of knowledge. On top of that, she has a huge heart for people around the world. It means so much to me that she is fulfilling one of her heart’s desires by teaching refugees at Weighting Comforts. What she does here is so very important.
When I first asked her to join Weighting Comforts, she taught a couple conversation classes to a handful of employees. Now, she has not only developed an entire program for five classes twice a week — from teaching ABCs to beginners to reading To Kill a Mockingbird with the advanced class — she has become a lifeline for many of our employees. She helps them understand drivers’ license tests, government processes, cultural norms, school communication, and has even attended parent/teacher conferences.
You guys, I am so happy to introduce to you the small-but-mighty Eileen Zegel!
- Donna Durham
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Since Eileen and her husband Buddy first married 35 years ago, full-time missionary work has been their greatest desire. The Caribbean island of St. Croix was their first mission field, but after a few years, that assignment was cut short by a devastating hurricane and the birth of twins. Buddy and Eileen knew it was time to return to the states, now as a family of 6, hoping to return to the mission field one day soon. Life in Tennessee became further settled with the birth of their fifth child. Eileen focused on rearing the children, homeschooling for many years, and also teaching in schools, while Buddy grew his small business.
As the children began to leave the nest, Buddy and Eileen invested more and more time in the local international community. Their church had a heart for Muslim people, and Eileen joined their efforts, teaching English as a Second Language to women from Iraq and Syria in the safety of their own homes.
In 2005, she traveled to Iraq with Servant Group International to help train classical teachers how to make math and science hands-on and fun for students.
While there, Eileen saw what the Iraqi parents desired for their children: safety, a good education, a good place to grow and thrive. These are the same desires I have for my children, she thought. Culturally they were very different, but they found common ground as people, which brought excitement and a culture of learning from each other. It was a life-changing realization.
Back in Nashville, Eileen further sought out Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian women to befriend and teach English, which she has done for ten years now.
Which brings us to her work at Weighting Comforts! Sitting down with Eileen, her exuberance about her work at Weighting Comforts is clear and contagious. We’d love to share more about Eileen’s work in her own words, including her favorite part of her work, and one simple step everyone can take to make our world a safer place. Read on!!
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Tell us about how you got started at Weighting Comforts, and what the classes are like.
Donna approached me a year and a half ago and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we offered the sewers English classes?” and I thought, “Yes, wouldn’t that be great!!” So I began coming to the factory once a week to have conversation classes. But as Weighting Comforts has expanded, I’ve added curriculum and separated people according to their abilities. I now have five different levels of classes. Some of the women have masters degrees, while others have only had 2 or 3 years of schooling, so we are starting with learning letters and numbers. This summer the advanced class is reading To Kill a Mockingbird together. How fun is that? It is a challenge, but it’s exciting!
Do you still want to be a missionary one day?
I always thought we would go back to the mission field once we were empty nesters, but by then we had grandchildren in town and didn’t want to leave them. One day after teaching I was praying about my desire to be with my family AND the desire to go to the nations. The Lord said to me, “Eileen, I have brought the nations to YOU!”
It is truly amazing to see how God orchestrates our lives. Now, in my everyday normal American life, I get to rub shoulders with women and men whom I would otherwise never get to share life with. It’s so exciting to me!
What is your goal with your students?
For me, my English classes are more than teaching the fundamentals of the language. It’s about helping with different cultures, and how to work within our U.S. culture. What does that look like? How do we all make sense of prejudice, and how do we learn to have a heart for people who are different than we are?
I intentionally blend language groups and cultures in each class, so it’s not only an English class but a cross-cultural experience. As a result, I’m watching the women find common ground with each other. They laugh, joke, have fun with each other. They listen to each others’ stories of courageously escaping their country because their lives were being threatened. I see their eyes light up when they realize how much they have in common with someone who looks and sounds differently. "I hear your story," they respond, "You are so courageous - and I can relate to that!"
These stories help us find more compassion for each other and more space to see “foreigners” as fellow human beings. My goal is that language and looks would no longer be a barrier; that we can all find a common ground.
Have your students taught YOU anything?
Yes! So much. My students are teaching me that across the world, people are more alike than different. We ALL have a tendency to stay within our own culture because it’s safe. It’s scary to get out beyond that, to engage people who are different than us. When we stay within our culture group, our world gets really small. We get depressed and lonely. BUT there is hope for change! I am seeing it with my own eyes.
What is your favorite thing about this job?
Seeing the men and women push against this universal tendency to isolate and instead begin to talk to each other. We are learning that while people may look a little differently, they feel the same loneliness. They are sharing who they are and people are seeing each other as fun human beings that they want to be with.
And I see them laughing with each other as they mispronounce words or say a sentence backward. We have the freedom to make mistakes and it doesn’t matter because they are beginning to share their hearts with each other and support each other. It’s such a gift to me!
I invited everyone over for an American lunch at my house and we had the best time. I wouldn’t let them bring anything and I made mac & cheese, hamburgers, pimiento cheese, and fruit. We talked about what we’re thankful for and what good things are happening in our lives. They are amazing women!
What advice can you give an American with a desire to make her world bigger? Where do we start?
I think we can take a cue from some of our WC employees who wear hijabs (head coverings). They’ve told me wearing a hijab is scarier now than it was 10 years ago. People give them harsh looks and tend to be afraid or angry at them. So they have started to say hello FIRST, to break the ice with a friendly greeting, to show Americans that they are a regular person, too.
So when you’re at the grocery store or Walmart and see someone who looks different than you, or speaks a different language — smile! That’s the beginning. Smile at them. Rather than give them a disdaining look, go out of your way to make someone feel comfortable. Say hello. Be kind.
In turn, that kindness can cultivate in YOU a heart of welcome.
If you really have a heart to step out and engage with the refugee or international community, search online for volunteer programs in your area. (See below for Nashville links) Churches, the library, literacy groups, and school systems often have many avenues to step out and interact with other cultures. If you feel intimidated, I recommend working with children at first.
Opportunities to get involved with the Nashville international/refugee community:
Servant Group International offers lots of opportunities, from Saturday morning walks to reading with kids or making jewelry with women.
Various ESL classes are hosted by churches, community centers, and non-profits such as the Salvation Army.
The Nashville Adult Literacy Council partners with the library and is in great need of adult volunteers.
Nashville Metro Public Schools has an English Learners program for families supported in part by parent volunteers.