In the early spring, Rachel, a local high school English teacher, contacted me because she felt a deep need to do something special for one of her brave students. She told me about this young girl, a refugee from Iraq, who had to leave her home when it became too dangerous to stay. Rachel really wanted to do something special for her and asked if she could hire me to take the girl’s senior pictures.
I had an amazing photoshoot with the senior girl, her sister, and Rachel on a quiet farm during the Middle Tennessee golden hour. The girls were smiling from ear to ear and soaking up every moment in the open outdoors. They loved having their portraits taken, and I could see the excitement in their eyes when they saw themselves on the back of my camera. The photoshoot wasn’t the only thing bringing them joy , they were simply in awe of the world’s beauty surrounding them. For many different reasons, it’s not something they had experienced in a very long time. In fact, the girls shed tears of happiness on their way home with Rachel. I left that night understanding why this teacher felt such a strong desire in her heart to do something for this student.
Eleven of Rachel’s thirteen years teaching have been at Smyrna High, which has a very diverse population. During this time, she has become especially fond of her ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Hearing their stories in her standard English classes led her to bravely ask for her own sheltered ESL classes, and luckily, her school administrators approved. During this time, she has learned about the challenges her ESL students and their families face: language barriers and a lack of transportation are two of the most common.
According to Rachel, “Their lack of confidence when it comes to communicating with native English speakers is a challenge. We spend a lot of time on learning how to call a doctor’s office to make an appointment, etc. because they are so self-conscious of their accents and how they will be perceived. I constantly remind them that every time they speak English, they are being so, so brave.”
Feeling a deep call to help in other ways, Rachel and her husband Michael have taken students on college visits and helped them fill out/turn in college paperwork. She also managed to get prom dresses donated to her senior ESL girls so they could go to prom. They met at school on the day of prom and Rachel found a stylist to come do their hair. The girls and Rachel had their own pre-prom get together, and then she loaded them up in her car and took them to prom.
Not only have these students learned from her, their teacher. But also, she has learned from them. After a recent field trip, her ESL students introduced her to her new favorite treat: mangonadas at a Mexican ice cream shop. She has loved learning from them about their cultures and customs.
Rachel’s friend Amy Kay who is also a teacher at the school describes her as a “cheerleader, counselor, confidant, chauffeur, and sometimes even a parental figure” for her ESL students. She hosts people at her home and enjoys sharing what she has, but not in an elaborate way. She simply wants to share, love, and give what she can.
Rachel, her husband, and their 5-year-old daughter bravely and boldly open up their home and hearts to young people of all ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. They are currently hosting a 15-year-old girl from Madrid, Spain. She hadn’t ever thought about hosting a foreign-exchange student until she got an email and read Lucia’s profile. She knew immediately that she wanted this girl to be a part of her family.
“I just love learning about different cultures, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for my family,” Rachel said.
Finally, when I asked her how her heart has changed since these students have come into her life, she replied, “I think going into teaching, we all hope to inspire young people, but when I started teaching my ESL students, it was the other way around. They inspire me to take risks and be brave because they and their families are the most gentle and courageous people I know.”
Rachel is beautiful on the inside and out because she opens her heart and gives so selflessly to the young people she encounters every day.
She is brave, courageous, generous, and humble.
I am proud to say, Rachel from Smyrna High School is Beauty Revived.
If you are interested in getting more involved in the community to help refugees and ELL students/families read what Rachel suggests below:
World Relief is an organization that does so much to help resettle refugees. I would encourage people to check out their local chapters to see what their specific needs are. I know here in Nashville, they are resettling over 200 refugees in the next coupIe of months, and they are in need of used furniture and other household items, as they fully furnish their new homes for them, so they have a “home” to come home to after being picked up at the airport (they do that, too) with nothing but what they can pack in a suitcase. They then provide services to them to help them become self-sufficient as they integrate into American culture.
Also, volunteer to teach adult ESL classes in your community, If there aren’t any, you could start one! Local libraries are great places to host them.
“Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day.”