The Sicilian Project: American Style!

sicilianprojectDon’t look now, but a group of Sicilian-Americans is doing something besides telling each other how much they love cannoli and pasta and Godfather movies.

You are reading this right….some Americans are now actively involved in raising money in the United States and supporting Sicilian students FOR FREE by issuing academic grants to a  QUALIFIED language school in Taormina and have quietly trained nearly 200 Sicilian high school kids the last 18 months.

With more to come.

Pass the cannoli and say it in English please.

Here is the story:

In 2012, I wrote my second book on Sicily, Gaetano’s Trunk and in one chapter I whimsically said that if someone gave me a million dollars I would start a school in Sicily to teach English to high school  students because I wasn’t thrilled about what I was seeing in terms of educating Sicilian kids in the English language.

Not that teaching English in Sicily is bad; as a matter of fact, in some urban areas it is quite good. However, in many areas it is bad. I have talked to many “English” teachers in Sicily who can probably read and write English in a passable manner, but the pronunciation of the language by some of them is practically an arrestable offense.

This is especially true in poorer communities and small towns and villages. I first witnessed this  lack of English speaking skills first hand years ago in a commercial context in New York City at the prestigious Fancy Food Show. I had attended the Fancy Food Show as an importer of Sicilian products.

Annually, the Sicilians would send a delegation of vendors to the Fancy Food Show who would also try to sell their products to American wholesale and retail buyers, but were limited in their success because of the language barrier. While the regional authorities supplied several translators for the non-English speaking Sicilian vendors, their lack of product knowledge, and lack or expertise in striking a bargain left many a buyer walking away from the Sicilian section of the Food Show shaking their heads.

Since the Sicilian government was picking up the tab for their expenses, it was as if some (most) vendors were there on the Italian government’s dime to enjoy the sights and sounds of Manhattan, and if they got an order or two, that was the gravy. Not an effective return on the investment I thought.

As the young translators were running up and down the Sicilian aisle trying to help potential customers and manufacturers, the bi-lingual French, Germans, Dutch and Belgians companies who could speak English walked away with the orders.

Only the “big” Italian companies, those that  had skilled translators at their booths, were writing orders. The rest of the vendors…the small businessmen who had wonderful products…were left to fend for themselves, and often unsuccessfully. For many of these people who had come to the USA in the hope of penetrating the marketplace, it was as if they were painting the Mona Lisa and then putting her in the closet.

A lack of basic English language skills, I concluded, was dooming Italy and d Sicily in the international trade community…especially the USA.

In Sicily, many of my friends are in the tourist business; hotel operators, restaurant owners, taxi and bus company owners, retail shop owners…and all have told me at one time or another that when they put an English speaker on the front desk, or behind the wheel of a taxi, or taking a food order, or selling any of the fantastic Sicilian products that tourists buy, that their  business increases between ten to twenty percent  with the English speaking worker as opposed to the non-English speaking worker. In other words, in Italy and Sicily…millions of euros are lost annually IN COUNTRY because of bad English skills with a captive audience.

To me it seemed that the captive audience of the English-speaking American travelers was not and has not been properly exploited as far as potential revenue was concerned.

While the cow was being milked, so to speak, her udders were still half full. Money …and a lot of it…. was being left on the table.

My reasoning in Gaetano’s Trunk at the time was simple: If Italian and Sicilian students became truly bi-lingual then perhaps they would be better prepared to compete in the international markets and in turn this would create more jobs, and perhaps help stem the flow of that critical intellectual mass of people…namely the unemployed college grad…from leaving the island.

I feared then, as I do now:  that Italy was becoming exactly like the other EU laggards…Greece, Spain and Portugal, but that part of the problem in Sicily was certainly  correctable. Thus, I wrote in my chapter that I wished that I had a million dollars. If I did, I would open a school to teach English FOR FREE to Sicilian students.

One day shortly after I published the book, I received an email from a gentleman from the small New England state of Vermont. I did not know this man. His name was Stephen Carbone. He asked that I call him to discuss this particular chapter in the book because it had touched his soul. When I called him the following day, we talked for a while and we bonded. In a single telephone call I had found a friend.

I found out during that first call that he was a successful business man in the car and real estate business, that his grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Provincia di Messina and that he was a frequent visitor to Taormina.

“I want to help” he said. I will drop a check in the mail to you to get you started.”

At the time, I thought to myself “Great…what will I do with $100?” To my surprise, the check arrived several days later, and it was substantially bigger than $100.

As a matter of fact, it was a $10,000 check!

I quickly formed a Massachusetts non-profit and named it The Sicilian Project, and quickly formed a board of directors, retained an academic expert in the English language, Dr. Donnamarie-Pignone-Kelly, and retained Sicily’s best language school, Babilonia Language School in Taormina.

In one signature of the pen on a check, we were off to the races. We created a website and began soliciting donations through my newsletter and Facebook friends and the donations became pouring in. Five dollars here, ten dollars there…many small and moderate donations began to arrive almost daily it seemed.

When we met with Babilonia School and its wonderful director Allesandro Adorno, our request was simple: we wanted native English speaking teachers who had advanced degrees in teaching English, and we wanted evidence of growth by: standardized testing, video presentations, and the like.

Allesandro  quickly embraced the idea, and classes began in Taormoina in July of 2012.

Since the Sicilian Project was launched in 2012, classes have now been conducted  in Taormina, Gaggi, Catania, Viagrande, and in early 2014  projects in Giardini Naxos and Trapedello have been added.

As the Sicilian Project matures, and additional QUALIFIED language schools are vetted and identified,  The Sicilian Project hopes to expand to Palermo, Siracusa and the hinterlands. This, of course, depends on the continued generosity of our American benefactors.

Our core belief is that English is the language of the international trade world, that what The Sicilian project is doing will help someday to  set an example for bigger and better things, and that the 200 students that have benefited thus far will increase to many more hundreds…perhaps thousands.

That’s the plan in any case.

American-Sicilians helping Sicilians…not exploiting them with mafia movies…actually putting cash on the barrel and helping out.

That is what the Sicilian Project is all about. Now: pass the cannoli but ask for the cannoli in English please!

Alfred Zappala

For Further Information about the Sicilian Project contact:

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Alfred Zappala
Alfred Zappala
Alfred M. Zappala was the co-founder and Managing Partner of the Law Offices of Struffolino & Zappala. Mr.Zappala is the author of several books on the bar examination and also “The Reverse Immigrant” a book that takes a humorous look at every day life in Sicily. His second book on Sicily, “Gaetano’s Trunk”, was recently released in September 2011. As President of All Things Sicilian, he helped introduce thousands of Americans to the wonders of Sicily. For his work promoting Sicily, in 2010 Mr. Zappala was the recipient of The Distinguished Service Award from the Italian Trade Commission. He has three children and four grandchildren: he considers this to be his single greatest accomplishment in life.

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  1. I’m glad that you said QUALIFIED. As an American TEFL instructor living in Siracusa, it breaks my heart to see parents paying good money for their kids to go to “English lessons” at night — and then later see no return on that investment. Kudos to you and your group for having faith in the amazing people of Sicilia.

  2. Phil makes a good point. But knowing many fine English teachers in Italian schools, including Americans and Brits who teach in Sicily, I can tell you that the main problem is unmotivated students.

    Mr Zappalà’s programme also overlooks quite a number of factors too numerous to list here, but I can assure him that the Sicilian trade reps on a junket to the USA have little interest in selling products.

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