Hometown Hero: With patience and an open heart, Terry Irwin has supported Concord’s New Americans

Odette Kanzayire has been tutored by Terry Irwin, a volunteer with Overcomers Refugee Services, for more than a year.

Odette Kanzayire has been tutored by Terry Irwin, a volunteer with Overcomers Refugee Services, for more than a year. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Odette Kanzayire has been tutored by Terry Irwin, a volunteer with Overcomers Refugee Services, for more than a year.

Odette Kanzayire has been tutored by Terry Irwin, a volunteer with Overcomers Refugee Services, for more than a year. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN

Monitor staff

Published: 06-18-2024 5:32 PM

Odette Kanzayire pulls a thin workbook from her purse, placing it on the table beside a spiral notebook whose edges are worn round. On its cover is splashed the title “Survival English.”

Kanzayire has been tutored by Terry Irwin, a volunteer with Overcomers Refugee Services, for more than a year. In weekly Friday sessions, they sit side by side in a windowless study room, the U.S. and world maps hung above them, a whiteboard and a copy of the Pledge of Allegiance tacked to the wall. As Irwin flips through the notebook, he remarks that its pages are almost all full.

Together they review last week’s lesson — familial words — by retracing their own family trees on the page, branch by branch. Then they move on to the lesson for the day, a review of food shopping.

This page of “Survival English” poses questions about the price of meat per pound, how much the buyer wants and what the total cost will be. To help her answer them, Irwin explains to Kanzayire what “lbs.” means and sketches out on the page why the dollar symbol is shaped like it is.

Kanzayire is one of Irwin’s two current clients. He and his wife moved from Concord to Exeter in January, but he travels to the capital city every Friday to spend the day with his tutees. Kanzayire is one of numerous New Americans Irwin has supported in his more than 10 years of volunteering in Concord. Irwin, Overcomers founder Clement Kigugu said, is especially suited for this work because of his ability to form trusting relationships with those he works with.

“He just has a passion to help people. He has a good heart, an open heart,” Kigugu said. “He’s really impacted people’s lives.”

In Concord, a city where more New Americans settled in the last decade than anywhere else in New Hampshire, according to state records, volunteers through Overcomers and organizations like it are one of few study resources available to those seeking to pass the citizenship test. Iriwn is one of 12 tutors at Overcomers — and 35 volunteers total — each of whom has one or two clients.

He began volunteering with Ascentria Care Alliance — a resettlement agency that has relocated thousands of people to New Hampshire, offering them employment, housing assistance, English classes and one-on-one support — about 13 years ago. He’s volunteered with Overcomers since 2017, Kigugu said, and served a crucial role in organizing fundraising.

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Before he focused on tutoring, Irwin was a driver, helping people get to important appointments. He also has helped connect people with jobs.

It’s a deeply personal way to work with someone: to find a job that is a good match, you have to learn not only their schedule and family demands but also their talents and skills.

“It takes trust,” he said. “And you have to earn trust.”

An insurance man before he retired and moved to Concord to be near family in 2007, Irwin spent the first decade of his career as a teacher. Restarting that work felt right, he said, and he began tutoring people both for the citizenship test and in general English after the pandemic.

Much of that work, especially for the citizenship test, he said, is tending to even the smallest flames of his students’ faith in themselves.

“Once you reach refugee status, you’ve had everything taken away from you. That does a lot to a person’s confidence,” Irwin said. “Everyone passes the test. The big thing is getting them to know that they’re going to pass.”

A genuine connection and the will to connect help overcome language barriers and make for effective teaching, according to Kigugu.

“It’s really a relationship connection. That’s our goal,” he said, adding that Irwin’s patience and experience working with refugees mean he is especially good at connecting with clients who are just starting out learning English and who may not have received formal schooling in their first language.

Irwin first began volunteering in search of stronger connections — both with others and within himself.

After retiring he dabbled in a number of ways to spend his suddenly ample time. But none of them brought the sense of meaning, identity and purpose that work inherently had.

“I tried gardening. I learned to ski. I did a lot of hiking,” Irwin said. “I was having a lot of fun. But I was empty.”

Irwin’s ability to form trust and have a lasting impact on people’s lives is most apparent in his relationship with four sisters, some of the first people he connected with when he began working with Ascentria. Young adults when he met them, Irwin tutored the sisters in English and for the citizenship test, helped them find work and learn financial literacy. They remain close.

To preserve their privacy, he asked that they not be featured prominently in this story. But he speaks about them with a pride that echoes parenthood.

Given how isolating and painful becoming a refugee and having to relocate can be, it’s not uncommon for volunteers and clients to form that kind of bond, Kigugu said.

“When people have a stress or a trauma — some of them lost their parents or children — so when they are connected with a volunteer, a kind of new family.”