‘More Than Words’: West Hartford’s ‘Building Connections Book Club

Building Connections Book Club members at a recent meeting: Front row, from left: Iryna Veriienko (Ukraine), ESOL teacher and book club coordinator Elizabeth Hanlon, Catalina Ordonez (Ecuador), and Viviane De Oliveira Rinaldi (Brazil). Second row, from left: Dr. Mayra Rodriguez Gonzalez (Ecuador), Kevin Torres (Ecuador), Manal Kalach (Syria), Christina Ding (China), Erica Nishizaki (Brazil), Janet Provim Peruzzo (Brazil), Kylie Zhang (China), Community Engagement Librarian Pramod Pradhan, and Director of West Hartford Libraries Laura Irmscher. Courtesy photo

A book club that meets at West Hartford’s Faxon Library creates a warm, safe place for immigrants to learn, grow, and make new friends.

By Tracey Weiss

Reading between the lines takes on a new meaning for the members of the Building Connections Book Club. It means a lot to members like Iryna Veriienko from Ukraine, who is one of the 12 members of the group that met at Faxon Library on Wednesdays to discuss the book they’re reading.

“Meeting here to share the book is comfortable,” she said. “We connect when we read. It motivates me to learn something and understand more.”

“There’s no stress and no judgment,” according to Elizabeth Hanlon. The coordinator and leader of the club, she’s a freelance English teacher and has taught English as a second language (ESOL) for 12 years.

The book club is a collaboration between the Golden Door Hartford (a center for immigrants) and West Hartford Public Libraries, and offers three 10-week sessions per year. The current session is funded by a Thomas F. Kilfoil grant through the library’s foundation.

The club is open to immigrants who are advanced language learners, according to Hanlon. So far, participants have included 37 immigrants from 17 different countries.

To get them all started at the first meeting of each 10-week session, Hanlon stresses that the book club is meant to be a stress-free, relaxed environment.

“It’s important they understand the gist of the book, not every word,” she said. “This is for them to be able to read for fun.”
Hanlon and Pramod Pradhan, the community engagement librarian for the town who also participates in the book group, make sure everyone has gotten a library card. “We also share an overview of all of the resources the library provides to residents,” Hanlon stressed. “As well as providing a supportive place to practice their English skills, the program aims to connect individuals and their families with the community. We also have an active WhatsApp group to share thoughts and announcements throughout the week.”

“This is one of my favorite activities,” Pradhan said. “It’s a safe place, and it’s not just about books. We are building a connection between services, and the library goes beyond that. I hope we can do more programs to meet and make connections like this.”

“Here, it’s one place I feel I belong to,” said Erica Nishizaki, who is from Brazil. “I’m connecting my learning with experience. I find it comforting. I appreciate the program.”

Everyone is “open to listening without judgment,” said Viviane De Oliveira Rinaldi, also from Brazil. “It’s a safe space. It’s hard to make new friends.”

“It’s an awesome program,” said Manal Kalach, who is from Syria. “I’m meeting people. And we have a great teacher.”

“This group has made me more confident,” Nishizaki added.
Christina Ding, from China, agrees. “This is a great opportunity for me to read in this club. We read all kinds of books. I know all these lovely people who come from all cultures and countries. We get insights and learn something new. I have learned and know more about the town.”

“I have learned how to write in English,” said Catalina Ordonez from Ecuador. “It’s helped me be less shy. I feel lonely and shy because of my accent but here I’m not lonely anymore. I’m happy.”

When they’re sharing – part of each session includes breaking into groups of four to talk about various topics with questions that Hanlon gives them – “they are practicing English without even realizing it because they’re having so much fun,” Hanlon said. “It makes them feel more comfortable in town and in Connecticut.”

The group’s reading materials have been diverse, according to Hanlon. Our “reading material spans a wide range of styles and topics including local newspaper articles, American classics like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, immigrant story graphic novels such as The Best We Could Do by This Bui, and inspiring nature poetry by Mary Oliver. We shared some chuckles over Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and some tears reading Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart.

“There always seems to be a topic that connects us,” she added, in and out of the group.

“I have not read a lot of books,” said Kevin Torres from Ecuador. “I have learned to appreciate reading, and to learn the culture of a book. This is a place to share my thoughts and share my country and culture.”

Torres’ wife, Dr. Mayra Rodriguez Gonzalez, also from Ecuador, was joining the group in person for the first time. “The impact [of the book club] goes beyond these walls. We talk about the books and he tells me about it.”

“We are all different people with different points of view,” Kalach said. “We see different things from different ways and we discuss it.”

“We are all so different but we are all so similar,” Nishizaki said. 
“I feel so blessed to be here,” Ordonez added.

“One person in the book club,” Hanlon said, “when we were reading To Kill A Mockingbird, left it out on his desk at work, and an American said to him, ‘Oh wow, I read that book in high school.’ It started a conversation.

“We have also been lucky enough to have many visitors to our group,” she continued, “including West Hartford writers. Last year, after reading Never Look an American in the Eye, Okey Nbide visited book club for an engaging and entertaining discussion about experiences immigrating to our area.”

There’s also another very important component to their group: food. On the last meeting of each session, they do a potluck and everyone brings a dish from their country.

Indeed, the group, with Elizabeth’s help, has compiled a list of grocery stores in the area to find foods from other countries.

Members of the Building Connections Book Club always have a potluck supper at the end of each 10-week session, and each brings a dish from their native country to share with the others. They also put together this list of area ethnic grocery stores, which is a great resource for anyone shopping for unusual ingredients. Courtesy image

“I always dreamt of doing this,” Hanlon said. “It’s way more fun than I imagined. I learn so much from them, as an American.”

A new session of the Building Connections Book Club is just getting underway, and will meet on Mondays, from 10-11:30 a.m., through March 27, at the Faxon Library. To register, contact Elizabeth Hanlon at [email protected] or text/call 860-305-1786.

The first three sessions of the Building Connections (Fall 2021-Spring 2022) were funded by the West Hartford Greater Together Community Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The fall 2022 session was funded by the Thomas F. Kilfoil Memorial Bequest through the West Hartford Libraries. Organizers are excited to announce that the book club will continue for at least another year with continued support from the West Hartford Community Fund from the Hartford Foundation.

 A version of this article previously appeared in West Hartford LIFE.

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