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Volunteer Spotlight: Elise Durell


Meet Elise Durell. Elise has been teaching English classes at Exodus for many years, and we are so grateful for her commitment and kindness.

1. Why did you choose to volunteer at Exodus? 

When the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011, I watched news reports of families with children just like mine fleeing their homes in search of safety. It was heartbreaking. And overwhelming. I felt compelled by my Christian worldview to do something, but also helpless in the face of so much need.  What difference could I make from Indiana? Volunteering at Exodus was an opportunity to give my faith an outward expression – to be part of the solution for the refugee crisis which is, as it turns out, much bigger than Syria!

2. What has the experience been like for you? (Please mention what your volunteer role is and how long you have been in that role.) 

I tell people all the time this is the best gig ever. I get to teach English to adults who are overwhelmingly grateful and eager to learn. Most recently, I’ve been working with the literacy program – teaching students who haven’t yet had the opportunity to learn to read or write, even in their native language, which makes learning English that much more of a challenge. 

3. What are some of your favorite memories?

I love to see my students get excited when things suddenly “click”. I love to watch them help and encourage one another. There’s laughter, and tears, joy and struggle all wrapped up together. The privilege of attending classes is so precious to them. During a unit on sharing basic information about your life, I once asked an 18 year old mom about when she first started school. She gave me a huge grin and said “Exodus English class!!” 

4. What has the experience taught you?

Definitely gratitude! It’s pretty humbling to see people who have experienced trauma and enormous difficulty and loss persevere day after day to find their way in this new culture. Most of the time with incredible grace, joy, love and hope. I speak one language. For most of my students, English is their third or fourth or fifth language. My first world problems are put squarely back in perspective time and time again by my amazing students. 

5. What do you wish other people knew about refugees? 

They are not so different from you and I. They are mothers and fathers, grandparents and children with hopes and dreams for their family’s future. They want to be productive, contributing members of their community. They are courageous, resilient, beautiful people who are full of rich life experiences. They have so much to teach us about the ways we see the world, if we’re open to relationships with them.

6. How has COVID-19 impacted your volunteer experience? 

Oh my goodness. In just about every way possible. English classes have moved online for now of course. This ramps up the challenge in so many ways, but also has a silver lining. It’s harder to practice writing. It’s harder to clearly demonstrate how to make a particular sound. The challenges of technology add another layer of brain work for our students, but they’re doing it! On the bright side, transportation and weather are not a barrier to coming to class. We’re also meeting some of the students’ sweet children and grandchildren who sometimes come along to Zoom classes and (hopefully) get inspired to help their parents or grandparents practice at home. My hat goes off to amazing Exodus staff and interns who have worked so incredibly hard to make a richly hands-on language curriculum work in a virtual setting.