ECOS (English Conversations for Overseas Students) was formed in 2012 to provide informal English practice for international students, working holiday travellers, new migrants and refugees.
Approximately 11 to 17 participants gather at Burwood Heights Uniting Church every Sunday night to practice their English with a team of volunteers. Many participants are from China, but the classes include people from Iran, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Japan, Colombia, Vietnam and Korea.
During October, ECOS celebrated five years of chatting with a special chocolate cake topped with five candles. The 17 participants and six volunteers present on the night sang ‘Happy Birthday’ together in their own language.
ECOS organiser Barry Horn said the weekly classes were inspired by a similar initiative at Deepdene and Burwood Uniting Church. He approached Deakin University and DUELI (Deakin University English Language Institute) to help promote the program.
“As we are located close to Deakin University, there seemed to be a missional opportunity at Burwood Heights,” Mr Horn said.
“Their support was conditional on our not proselytising as they’ve had bad experiences with other faith groups hassling their students.
“We had no intention of doing so anyway. We don’t talk religion at ECOS unless someone asks, and then we do it objectively.”
Mr Horn said 20 participants have been given a certificate or “joined the 25 Club” by attending at least 25 sessions, while eight have received a personalised coffee mug for visiting 50 times.
Long-time participant Judy has been awarded a trophy for joining the exclusive 100 Club. She was given the honour of blowing out the candles on the birthday cake.
Mr Horn said hospitality is important for ECOS as they want participants to feel comfortable in social situations.
“We always have a supper break which is a great opportunity for socialising. The atmosphere is always friendly,” he said.
“If we were starting afresh, we might be tempted to call it an English Club.”
The majority of ECOS volunteers are members from the Burwood Heights congregation, although some also come from the wider community.
Mr Horn said teaching English to young people and migrants is “very rewarding” for the volunteers as they can learn about different cultures and form friendships across generations.
“It is a joy to meet so many lovely people, and though they are all younger than me and some of the other volunteers, this doesn’t seem to matter to anyone,” he said.
“It is an honour to be asked to stand in for distant parents at graduation ceremonies or weddings.”
The ECOS team is currently looking for new volunteers to join their Sunday roster from February next year. People who are interested can contact Barry Horn at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 9803 5999 for more information.