Doris Bonneau is delighted to be organizing a new after-school French language program in 2012 at Sherwood Heights Elementary School in Auburn. This language program is similar to the Augusta after-school classes organized by Chelsea Ray, a professor at the University of Maine in Augusta.

Both programs will emphasis learning North American French language and Franco-American traditions.

Learning French is a way to pay homage to the state’s Franco-American culture and traditions. Bonneau wants to see children of Franco-American heritage learning French alongside their peers from diverse backgrounds.

Bonneau says the after-school language program brings her love for speaking French full circle back to her local community roots. She’s bringing French back home where she learned it, 64 years ago when she grew up in Auburn.

Growing up, Bonneau dreamed about how she would travel the world when she was older and she left home to study in France. Her classes, she hopes, will help children to see the world beyond Auburn.

Speaking French became her key to world. “La cle au monde,” she says. “For me, speaking French was the key to other worlds. I learned how people in other countries lived in patterns differently than we do in Maine. Being Franco-American set me free to express myself in another language.”

Her very first travel experience, as a young student during the 1960s, was a trip to study in France. Her journey began with a $39 airplane ticket from the Auburn airport to La Guardia in New York City. “I still have the ticket stub,” she says. A friend drove her to a pier where she boarded a ship for her Trans Atlantic crossing.

Before that, she had never even been to Boston.

“I certainly didn’t have a cell phone, no email, just a trunk and my passage,” she says. As a result, she wrote many long handwritten letters home.

She returned to France several times after her first trip, and studied in Aix en Provence, Paris, Toulouse and Lyon.

Today, Bonneau shares the joy of speaking French with her grandchildren.

Her experience in education put her in touch with Ray, at UMA. She hopes their programs will become a sustainable model for other afterschool academic classes. She says afterschool academics are an important option for children who might not choose to participate in other extracurricular activities.

Auburn’s French Heritage Language Program is a pilot project.

“I hope the French language afterschool program will be fun for the children. We want kids to understand how learning French will expand their vision of the world beyond Auburn,” she says. Eventually, all Maine school children will be given a chance to learn French in afterschool programs, if the program grows as expected.

She circulates a fact sheet listing the top 10 reasons why people should learn to speak French. Among those reasons: It’s a language spoken throughout the world by 220 million people, many of them who are connected to the 2,800 French companies located in the United States.

Auburn’s afterschool program is funded through a collaboration with the French American Cultural Exchange (FACE) in New York, the Auburn School Department’s Community Learning Center (CLC) and the Lewiston Franco-American Heritage Center. Rita Dube, the center’s director and Ray Lagueux, the president, asked Bonneau to organize the program.

“We want to instill a deep respect for the North American French as it is spoken in Maine as well as teach a better understanding of the Franco-American culture. It would be wonderful if all Maine schoolchildren had a chance to learn French,” says Bonneau.

For more information, contact Bonneau [email protected].