ITHACA, N.Y. — Staff, students and local officials gathered on Tuesday to celebrate the culmination of more than a year of struggle, and to remember a friend and colleague, with a ribbon-cutting for the Open Doors English: Julie Rudd Coulombe Language Program.

More than 100 people, mostly current students of the program and former students of various staff members, gathered in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church on the corner of Cayuga and Court streets to celebrate the beginning of the new endeavor.

Manuel Negrete immigrated to the United States in 2015. When he arrived, his English was not the strongest and it made adapting to his new home more difficult.

“When I came four years ago, I just knew how to pronounce ‘Yes, no, please, thank you,” said Manuel Negrete, who spoke on behalf of students. “Today I am able to communicate my ideas … it’s wonderful to be able to work in this country … to earn money and to put good food on the table for my family. All of this is possible for me because in this town exists this institution, Open Doors English”

Most of the staff at Open Doors are former employees of Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES. After changes to the English as a Second Language funding structure, deep cuts were made to the staff. The remaining staff, tasked with teaching the new curriculum that limited ESL students to those seeking employment and focused mainly on workplace English, quit — choosing to instead continue teaching on a volunteer basis.

“The change meant that many of our students couldn’t continue studying English at BOCES and that most teachers would lose their jobs,” said Liz Susmann, co-director of the program and ESL teacher. “There was nothing that the teachers could do to stop that change. And so the teachers…decided together to stop working for BOCES and we quit together on February 8th. All of us were determined to continue teaching English and supporting our students. We know how important our program is for so many people.”

A week later, the teachers began teaching classes at the First Unitarian Church. Between February and June, the program that grew to become Open Doors English, taught about 100 students. That was about the time Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action took Open Doors English on as a project, giving the organization non-profit status.

By July, the group had secured classroom and administrative space on the third floor of the First Presbyterian Church. In September, they welcomed the program’s official inaugural class. Now teachers are being paid and students again have an inviting learning environment.

Unfortunately, the tight-knit group of educators and administrators lost one of their own in the journey.

Julie Rudd Coulombe was the first change to BOCES ESL program, being laid off early in the changes to the curriculum, and was heavily involved in the inception of Open Doors English before her death in March — so much so, the group named the school after her.

“Julie died from cancer in March and we miss her, very deeply, every day. Our name, Open Doors English: The Julie Rudd Coulombe Language Program, comes from her,” said Susmann. “She knew that learning English allowed students to open doors to many opportunities and to connect and become a part of the community in Ithaca. She also believes that English classes are for everybody. … We believe these things, too. And we feel Julie with us as we work.”

Mayor Svante Myrick speaking at the ribbon-cutting. (photo by Thomas Giery Pudney/Ithaca Voice)

Manuel Negrete also spoke about Julie’s kindness during his address and the gratitude, for her and the organization, that he will carry with him.

“I want to earn several millions of dollars, only to give it to them,” said Negrete to laughs from the crowd. “Then they will have good opportunities to help other persons like me. Persons with names and dreams, that come to this country to serve and to build a better life. In my case, it is possible because Julie Coulombe opened the doors of this institution to me. Now I am sure, I don’t have enough life to say thank you.”

Local officials also came out to express their gratitude to the organization for helping to make Ithaca a more inclusive and comfortable place for people, regardless of background.

Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, who represents Ward 2, explained that his experience as the son of Vietnamese immigrants — a father who spoke English and a mother who did not, illustrated for him at an early age, the importance of being able to communicate with the world around you.

“(My mother) got to university and the dean asked her if she was cold, but she had no idea what he was saying, so she just shook her head no. But she was freezing,” recounted Nguyen. “She told us this as a funny anecdote, but it shows the absolute importance of communication … I’m so thankful that these volunteers, the Center for Transformative Action and other members of the community, have put this together.”

Nguyen stepped in to speak for a tardy Mayor Svante Myrick, who spoke towards the end of the event, thanking Open Doors for providing others in the community the same opportunity moving to Ithaca offered him. Connection.

“It’s like you were living in a house with windows but no doors, that you could see people, and that people could see you, but you couldn’t reach them. You can touch them but you couldn’t connect to them,” said Mayor Svante Myrick. “I know that I felt that way in my life. I was raised in a place where I was different, in a village of 800 people. My house was the black neighborhood and it often felt alone and it was moving to Ithaca that I finally felt like I could open my door and connect to people.”

While partnering with the Center for Transformative Action has helped solidify the finances of the organization, the group is still seeking help from the public. Those wishing to contribute to the program can visit the group’s GoFundMe page here.