Zhifeng Huang is a Chinese national and a graduate student at UC Irvine. Every Friday, he goes to Voyagers Bible Church to learn a little English — for free.
Huang, 25, is one of nearly 300 people who have attended English as a second language (ESL) classes at the Irvine church, which hosts them weekly as part of its Christian ministry and outreach. The teachers are all volunteers and attendees of the church.
"This class encourages me to communicate with people in English," said Huang, who has been in the U.S. since the spring. "Also, I think my communication has been improved. It's very important. I need English to read the newspaper, discuss class with my instructor, and also living life."
Organizers of the Voyagers ESL classes call the program H.O.M.E. — Helping Others Master English. The ESL program recently kicked off its second year at the church, and word of mouth about the free English classes quickly spread.
In a city where the population has changed drastically over the past 35 years — in 2015, Asians comprised 45.7% of Irvine's population, compared with 8% in 1980 — the ESL classes are a critical learning opportunity for recent arrivals who are struggling to fit in.
Jim Gustafson is the director of H.O.M.E., one of 24 ESL instruction programs operating under the umbrella of South Coast Literacy Council, a nonprofit that has provided free ESL classes to South Orange County since 1970.
"We have a heterogeneous mix here," said Gustafson, a retired executive in medical devices and resident of Irvine's Woodbridge neighborhood. "These are husbands, wives, moms and dads. They're mostly very recent immigrants whose English is rudimentary at best."
Roughly 40% of the ESL class attendees at Voyagers are Chinese, Gustafson said, adding that students hail from 25 countries, six continents and speak 16 languages. They come from as far as Ukraine, India, Turkey, Vietnam, Myanmar, Japan, Brazil and Iran.
"We do it as a Christian ministry," Gustafson said. "We don't ask about immigration status; we don't care about it. We're serving humans who are living in the Irvine area. They want to learn English, and we want to help them. Our motto is: 'Love our neighbor, welcome the stranger and serve the city,' and that's what we're doing."
As the population in Irvine and Orange County has shifted to majority non-white, there has also been an increase in ESL classes in churches, community centers and other non-academic settings.
"They need English," said Barbara Looney, president of South Coast Literacy Council. "I see that they're gaining, and we're helping them integrate with the community, and the students are so appreciative."
Natalia Bilivitina, a native of Ukraine, found the H.O.M.E. program by Googling "free English lessons in Irvine." Having learned some English in Ukraine, she placed in an intermediate class.
"I want to improve my English skills," said Bilivitina, 32. "I have a problem with my English-speaking level. I can understand English speakers, I read different English books, I watch movies just in English, but I have no practice in my English speaking."
Queenie Xia, a stay-at-home mother of two children, heard about the ESL classes from a friend.
"I like English," said Xia, 29, who immigrated from China six months ago, "but I need to practice and learn more."
The classes, taught by one or two trained instructors, emphasize conversational English and important life skills, such as going to the doctor, ordering food at a restaurant or talking to a child's teacher. About once a month, all the students meet in a large-group presentation, where topics such as police and community safety, emergency medical care and American holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter) are discussed.
In addition to churches, South Coast Literacy Council sponsors free ESL classes at libraries, community centers, mosques and apartment complexes. The ESL centers range from St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Tustin to El Toro Library in Lake Forest to Scout Hut in San Juan Capistrano. A list of locations and more information can be found at southcoastliteracy.com.
Joshua Tan, 41, of Irvine attends Voyagers Bible Church and serves as a translator for Chinese speakers who are struggling to learn English.
"I empathize with their struggles, because when I first came here, it was very difficult to navigate around the community," said the mental health therapist. "Socially, I felt that I was isolated. I do not want anyone to feel like how I felt. We want to reduce the barriers and assist them to be successful to integrate into our community."