The experience of living in Germany for several years helped Bemis Elementary PTO past president Heidi Hubacker understand how tough it is to assimilate to a new culture, a new language, and a new school. Parents of the 500 students in grades K-5 at Bemis, PTO Today’s 2010 Parent Group of the Year for Outstanding Outreach to a Multicultural Parent Base, speak 28 different languages at home. So two years ago, she and her coleaders launched monthly Cultural Coffee Mornings at the Troy, Mich., school to create a comfortable atmosphere for parents wanting to practice conversational English. The school’s ESL tutors help get the word out to parents. Hubacker coordinated the sessions the first year; PTO vice president Jeanette Tanafranca took over in 2009-10.

The meetings are conducted without the translators, since the idea is to make it a social hour with conversational English. “Our main goal was to keep it simple, inviting, and interesting—a first step [toward] feeling more welcome and comfortable to our school,” Hubacker says.

PTO leaders provide coffee, and participants bring a treat from their home country. “One month we asked everyone to bring bread from their native country, and we would talk about when and how it was served and where you can purchase it locally,” Hubacker recalls. A new discussion topic is introduced each month; attendees have talked about everything from seeing snow for the first time to buying their first “American barbecue grill.” They’ve also picked up pointers on helping their children adjust to new friends and a new school.

The coffee klatches have helped parents from China, Germany, Jamaica, India, Korea, Pakistan, and several other countries assimilate at Bemis, according to Tanafranca. “It’s really interesting how some of the moms felt that their English was a barrier in getting involved in school,” she says. “And in reality, their English was great and they just needed some confidence and a familiar face to connect with.” The monthly meetings have provided that boost and more.

Both Hubacker and Tanafranca have noticed that many parents with limited English skills are now far more comfortable volunteering at PTO events, in the library, or in a classroom. “We’ve helped them understand that perfect English isn’t necessary to communicate and be involved,” Hubacker says.

The judges loved: The PTO enlisted help from parents to translate flyers and documents sent home from school. Among the list of documents available in Bengali, Hindi, Mandarin, Portuguese, and Tamil is an instructional guide on how to check and treat students for head lice.

Cool fact: During the 2009-10 school year, the Bemis PTO provided another important service for parents: a free CPR course. A parent volunteer taught the 90-minute class.