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posted: 12/4/2011 1:00 AM

Wheaton's 'St. Patricia' helps hundreds learn English

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  • Patricia Bernhold of Wheaton practices pronunciation of suburban towns like Wheaton, Joliet and Romeoville with 10 adult students learning English at People's Resource Center in Wheaton. Center officials estimate that Bernhold has helped hundreds of students from 19 different countries learn the language.

       Patricia Bernhold of Wheaton practices pronunciation of suburban towns like Wheaton, Joliet and Romeoville with 10 adult students learning English at People's Resource Center in Wheaton. Center officials estimate that Bernhold has helped hundreds of students from 19 different countries learn the language.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • Patricia Bernhold of Wheaton gives a lesson about the proper way to say food-related terms -- such as lettuce, meatball and corn flour -- in English to adults studying the language Saturday at People's Resource Center in Wheaton. Bernhold has volunteered at the center for about eight years.

       Patricia Bernhold of Wheaton gives a lesson about the proper way to say food-related terms -- such as lettuce, meatball and corn flour -- in English to adults studying the language Saturday at People's Resource Center in Wheaton. Bernhold has volunteered at the center for about eight years.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

  • English student Ismail Karwa of Glen Ellyn listens as Patricia Bernhold explains how native English-speakers often don't fully pronounce each sound when speaking informally.

       English student Ismail Karwa of Glen Ellyn listens as Patricia Bernhold explains how native English-speakers often don't fully pronounce each sound when speaking informally.
    Marie Wilson | Staff Photographer

 
 

The clients and volunteers at the People's Resource Center have a nickname for Wheaton resident Patricia Bernhold. Because of her countless hours tutoring low-income people from 19 countries in English, she has become affectionately known as "St. Patricia."

What began as one-on-one tutoring sessions with a woman from Afghanistan has evolved during the past eight years into classes offered three times a week.

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Through those classes, she has helped hundreds of adults learn the language, either for personal enrichment or to work toward citizenship.

Maryanna Milton, the facility's literacy program director, says the program would not be the same without Bernhold.

"There is not a day that goes by that we are not thankful for her," she said. "She is the most balanced, compassionate, competent person. We call her 'St. Patricia.'"

On a normal Saturday, Bernhold, 75, will tutor up to 10 adults from several different countries of origin during a three-hour morning session.

While the students consider her a mentor and a friend, Bernhold says she takes as much from the classes as they do.

"To be honest, I almost feel selfish because every moment I am there, it is a good moment," she said.

She said her geography has improved and that she has learned a lot about world cultures. Not bad for a woman who has rarely left the country -- "I crossed into Canada to have dinner once."

Bernhold's path has led to an almost natural transition to post-retirement teaching. She taught adults at Mundelein College for several years and spent time as a secretary for a special education district in Highland Park up until her 2002 retirement.

With a deaf son, she has had experience with language barriers of a different kind.

"We really do not share a language," Bernhold said. "I had to learn his language but I am not an equal in his language."

But to get to the root of Bernhold's appreciation for teaching English, she goes back nearly 60 years. As a teen in San Francisco, Bernhold fell in love with the radio show, "Life with Luigi."

The show followed Italian immigrant Luigi Basco to his English classes, where a "very patient" teacher helped the students through their struggles.

Bernhold now has to exhibit that same patience and she does so regularly. She and her Afghan student still laugh at the day the woman wanted to tell Bernhold about a garage sale.

"It took almost 10 minutes just to get through 'garage,'" she said with a laugh.

An avid reader, Bernhold said she now learns as much from the refugee stories as she does from her books. She belongs to four book clubs, including one based out of the People's Resource Center.

And her dedication is rarely matched, Milton said.

"She understands that education is one way people will try to improve their lives for themselves and their families," she said. "She really gets to know her students. They look to her as a teacher, guide, a friend, adviser and mentor. We couldn't do what we do without her."

But Bernhold stresses how much she appreciates the facility because it allowed her to teach English as a second language classes, something she knew she wanted to do immediately following her retirement.

"I am so grateful I found the People's Resource Center and my goal is to stay there as long as I can drive," she said. "And, when I can't, I will take a cab."

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