ITHACA, N.Y. –– Open Doors English, an Ithaca non profit, is holding its first ever takeout dinner fundraiser on April 9, a year after their in-person event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Open Doors, like many local businesses, is at risk of closing its doors because of the coronavirus. 

Liz Susmann, co-director and teacher, said they were inspired by a takeout dinner fundraiser the Sanctuary Alliance and Tompkins County Immigrant Right Coalition had in December 2020. 

“We decided we’d like to try something similar as well … they were the ones who gave us the confidence that it could be pulled off,” Susmann said. 

The takeout dinner has been planned by Susmann, Mary Loehr, fundraising coordinator and teacher, and the fundraising committee, comprised of 5 volunteers. While planning, they’ve made sure featured dishes have come from their students’ cultures. In addition, they want to keep it simple in order to make large batches. 

The organizers settled on two entrees, both served over rice. The first is Moroccan Harira, a stew with lentils, tomatoes, and cucumbers and the second is Persian Herb and Chickpea Stew, featuring chickpeas, spinach, and fresh herbs. Every meal also comes with naan bread, Iranian cucumber salad, and cookies from Russia, Brazil, and China. They’re receiving ingredient donations from local farms, and are also accepting sponsorship to pay for any other materials. 

Volunteers and teachers are what make Open Doors such a safe and engaging space for students to learn English. During the pandemic when they moved to online instruction, the nonprofit loaned prepaid wifi hotspots to students so they could still attend classes, safely visited students to help them get online, increased evening classes for those who work during the day, and received a grant to create a laptop lending library. 

Loehr said that moving online has actually helped many students with both working around their schedules and the fact that some got sent back to their home countries. Without online instruction, those students wouldn’t be able to keep learning English. 

David Sossa has been taking classes with Open Doors since the beginning. He only knew basic English before including only reading and writing it. Now, he can speak well in English and can explain his ideas properly. 

The online classes have been especially beneficial to him because he works 40 hours a week at Cornell as a technician in a chemical lab working with bees.  

“(I have a) deep connection with this school, it is my home, my family at the beginning of living in Ithaca. I didn’t meet anybody at first. It (Open Doors) was like a home, a safe place,” he said. 

“Really beautiful and unexpected and perhaps unlikely relationships thrive. Friendships between people who would have no reason to cross paths otherwise, it’s really beautiful to see. We’ve had Turkish lawyers befriend Burmese refugees … Nowhere else would they be friends,” Susmann said.  

Sossa said it’s really different from where he grew up in Columbia where it isn’t that simple to get funding or grants for programs because people either don’t have enough money or don’t want to invest in charity. Here in Ithaca he’s seen people invest in others and make things better. This is what inspired him to be part of the advisory board committee for Open Doors as he wants to continue to support it.

However, things have not been all good since going virtual. With the pandemic, they’ve lost students and seen a drop in tuition revenue. Students pay for classes on a sliding scale, so they’ve gone from about $70-75 to $30 for a four week session. They currently have 70 students enrolled whereas last year they served over 200 students. Open Doors is anticipating a $15,000 shortfall in tuition revenue, according to Susmann.

They have a goal of $10,000, raised $2,500 so far, and received good feedback about the dinner, especially from the students who are very excited to volunteer for the event, according to Loehr. Students among other volunteers will be making the meals under the guidance of Susmann and the fundraising committee. They’ll be adhering to all health department guidelines, maintaining social distancing, using double masks, and in a commercial kitchen certified by the health department.  

“We love the students, that’s why we love our jobs. To work with them and to see their English improve and see them become part of the Ithaca community,” Loehr said, and the money will mean they can keep doing what they love. 

Just two years old, Open Doors directors and teachers were teaching ESL in another school district when they came up with the idea for the school, and for its name/motto. 

“When we were there, one of the students said to our colleague and boss, ‘Living in Ithaca without enough English is like living in a house with windows but no doors. So you can see out, but you can’t really go out and engage and talk to people and interact,’ ” Loehr said. 

And so Open Doors was named and has been serving students from all over the world, meeting real needs. Needs like teaching skills for the workplace, resume writing, going to the doctor, talking on the phone, and everyday skills. 

“Very subtle things like eye contact or how to accept a compliment can be revelatory to a student who has a completely different norm in their home culture,” Susmann said. 

Alexandra Arroyave, originally from Venezuela, is one of those students who the everyday skills has helped tremendously. She said before attending classes, she didn’t know any English at all, now she can have conversations and feel comfortable speaking it. 

She said that the teachers talk about any topic and explain it in a manner that’s easy to understand. 

“They explain with love … I think they are a literacy college. They explain it in a way you can learn more easily,” Arroyave said. 

The international takeout dinner is on April 9. You can pick up meals from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church on Cayuga Street. Pick up will be on the Dewitt Park side of the church. They will have a limited number of walk-in meals but they strongly urge people to preorder. 

You can see the food and preorder the meals here.