By Bridget Hallinan
Cathy Garvey works to improve the lives of students in the Syracuse Area — whether it be second graders or, more recently, student refugees from Kenya.
In a bright yellow room, Cathy Garvey, 66, stands out in a soft, lilac sweater. The sea of desks and computers dwarf her 5’5 frame, but her voice carries easily over the din of her classroom. Fluorescent lights hum overhead while a baby cries—the mother hushes it gently and coaxes it to recite the alphabet displayed on the walls. Students whisper to each other in side conversations; however, the language varies from one pair to the next. Arabic can be heard from the front of the room, and a debate in Kikongo (from the Congo) carries on in the back. Garvey shushes them before beginning her lesson plan.
“I eat beef, but I do not eat pork,” she reads from the easel, where small pictures of meat and fish feature hand-written labels. She repeats the sentence and urges her students to join her. In response the students deliver an earnest, but strained version of the phrase.
Garvey’s students—ranging from 18–68 years old—are refugees, and it’s her job to help them adjust to life in America as an ELS teacher at the Northside Catholic Youth Organization (CYO). Her pupils hail from countries such as Myanmar, Syria, and Guatemala—and with 25 of them in the room, her class is a veritable cultural melting pot. Garvey says she loves connecting with her students and “getting to know them as individuals, learning about their culture and family in the process.” It’s one of the many reasons why she considers teaching these ELS classes to be her dream job. After her class ends she takes a seat in front of me and shares that she just reached her four-year anniversary at the organization. She has a kind face, framed by a neat bob of gray hair. A silver heart encased in a circle hangs around her neck.
“I wish that the people in the U.S., especially the ones who are negative about refugees, could just work here for a day,” Garvey says. “I think they wouldn’t look at them as refugees, they would look at them as people — individual people just like anybody else.”
As a former elementary education teacher, Garvey’s background makes her an ideal ELS instructor. Years spent working with children and teaching basic language skills have helped smooth the transition into her CYO classes. She’s also no stranger to working with refugees—Garvey previously home-tutored families within the Syracuse City School District. And through her church, St. Augustine’s in Baldwinsville, she helped provide transport and accompany people to their doctors appointments, in addition to donating food and toiletries. Whether it be helping to acclimate new families to the neighborhood or hosting large St. Joseph’s Day feasts each year, Garvey fosters a great curiosity for the world and genuinely works hard to make it a better place, says Julie Clayton, Garvey’s college roommate. “Cathy has always been a very caring person and seems to really enjoy this position working with the refugee population,” says Clayton. “She has always been a very joyful, giving person and that is why I have always enjoyed being a close friend.”
Garvey’s mornings at the CYO always start out the same way. Each day at 9 am, Monday through Thursday, she goes over the prescribed curriculum—reviewing topics and vocabulary and pulling corresponding materials to use during class. With tools like flashcards and bingo at her disposal, Garvey encourages her students to speak with each other. Prompting conversation and supporting reading and writing is her main focus, and she gives her students the tools they need to achieve these goals. However, the duration of the ELS classes and the students’ varying backgrounds provide challenges. CYO classes run on a three-month cycle, rotating through 12 or 13 topics before starting over with fresh students. Each class lasts only two hours. This compressed timeline, combined with her students’ different levels of fluency, often makes it challenging for Garvey to provide a significant and lasting impact. But with student helpers and volunteers, she ensures that no one feels left behind.
Garvey points out the CYO newsletter, where three women from her morning class are featured in the main story. “They came by themselves, without family,” she says. “We had a hard time getting them out of their apartments. Now, they smile, they talk. They help other people, so they’ve become much more social. And that I think has been a real plus, something that has meant a lot to me.”
One of her most successful students is a woman originally from Guatemala. She’s been coming to the CYO for the past two years, and it shows in her fluency. She works on Mondays and attends classes Tuesday through Thursday. However, with the help of Garvey’s ELS classes, she hopes to work on her writing and conversation skills enough so that she can land a full-time job. For Garvey, seeing students succeed—becoming comfortable and social in the classroom, and blossoming in the three months they spend together—serves as the ultimate reward.. Teenage students, who come to her classes in the weeks before entering high school, seem to achieve the most in the shortest amount of time. “Yesterday, a parent came in and said her daughter was number one in her class,” Garvey says proudly.
Gloria DiFlorio, a CYO volunteer with a background in foreign languages, has been working with Garvey for the past three years and says she fosters an amazing level of cooperation between her varied students.“She really makes everyone feel valued,” says DiFlorio. “Even though the students are from different countries, she makes it possible for them to be friendly with each other. It’s amazing because they watch her, and they somehow have a way of communication. They understand, and of course they help each other.” The CYO students possess a hunger to learn that is extremely rewarding to work with, she says, and the growth that Garvey reinforces in her classes each week is incredible to witness.
Outside of the CYO, Garvey still works to improve her students’ lives. She is currently forging a partnership with the CNY Regional Market that would provide a free bus from the North Side on Saturdays. Both transportation and access to fresh produce—things that can easily be taken for granted—are crucial for her students, and it reminds Garvey to be more grateful and appreciative. “I am still in awe of their ability to handle their situations,” Garvey says. “I can’t imagine going through what some of them have gone through and coming out being able to smile, and laugh, and go on with my life. So I think on their example, when I see something not go so well, that I’ve grown up in America. Little things happen…don’t sweat the small stuff.”