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A Mission for Life

April 8, 2015

Florence HeadshotToday’s guest blog comes to us from Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and AmeriCorps VISTA alum, Florence Phillips. Florence began volunteering at 55 when she joined the Peace Corps. She served in three different foreign countries. When she came home, Florence served as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for five years in a Service Learning Program. She now works as the Executive Director for the ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada.

I am 84 years of age and have been a proud volunteer for thirty years. My service in Peace Corps and AmeriCorps transformed my life and greatly impacted the work I do today.

Inspired by my experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer, I became mindful of the great need for services in my adopted hometown of Carson City, NV. A major issue I found was the lack of respect that immigrants were getting because they did not speak English. I became mindful of the many challenges faced by people trying to learn the local language while simultaneously trying to survive in a new country. Being fluent in Spanish, I began teaching English to a local woman from Mexico who couldn’t afford the ESL classes offered at the local college.

I soon found out that many of the immigrants in my community weren’t only facing language and economic barriers. While teaching ESL classes, I found out one of the women I taught had no transportation. As a Peace Corps and AmeriCorps alum, when I hear a problem, I ask, “How can I be part of the solution?” I decided to volunteer to come to her home and teach English at no cost. When I arrived at the scheduled time, I not only found my expected student, but five other people as well, all needing help with their English.

ESL BannerRecognizing that my individual effort was not enough to support the need that quite clearly existed, I began recruiting other volunteers. The initial students told their friends, and word soon spread and more students approached us. The small group of volunteer tutors that had assembled was not nearly enough to help everyone. Realizing this, I had the vision to formally incorporate this mission into an organization and thus, in 2004, the ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada was founded.

The ESL In-Home program is unique because it takes into account the financial, public transit, job, and childcare constraints that many of our students face. We work to overcome these challenges by keeping to four main principles in our program.

  1. There is no cost to the student.
  2. Tutors will meet their students in their homes if there are problems due to transportation, job constraints and/or childcare.
  3. Tutors will seek out other places to meet in public spaces such as libraries to accommodate students.
  4. Tutors and student will mutually agree on the timing of classes.

Now, as the Executive Director of the program, I spend most of my waking hours organizing the growing nonprofit that now covers five counties in Northern Nevada with 171 community volunteer tutors teaching English language skills to 482 adult immigrants. Many churches, businesses, and other organizations have joined our network and provide our program’s free English classes to their parishioners, employees, and clients.

The program has made strong efforts to eliminate people’s obstacles to learning English. Therefore, many more people have been able to learn English in the community and are now able to be active in the English-dominated society of their new home.

Students and their families at at U.S. Citizen Swearing-In Ceremony

Florence with students and their families at at U.S. Citizen Swearing-In Ceremony

Once the English language program was under way, I heard from students that they also wanted to learn how to become U.S. citizens and learn GED skills. They wanted to enjoy the benefits of being an American citizen and/or having a high school degree. Therefore we expanded to include these classes. In addition, the program has been opened to offer opportunities to homeless persons and ex-offenders, where they can be taught resume-building and receive job skills tutoring that will help them find a job and a new life.

I’m incredibly proud of the accomplishments of this program, our volunteers, and our students. Since the program’s inception in February 2004…

  • Over 3,800 adults and their families have been helped in English language skills
  • 182 students received U.S. Citizenship
  • Many students found jobs and others have advanced in their employment
  • 24 students are studying for GED diplomas
  • Parents now communicate with children’s teachers and medical personnel without interpreters
  • Parents are helping children with homework and school activities
  • Students and their families are shopping in English-speaking stores.
  • Some students have enrolled in higher education.

I am also pleased to inform you that from 2009 to 2013, I had five AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteers assigned to my program. They expanded the program into 5 additional counties. Each one loved the experience they had and were able to use that experience to find good jobs in the careers they chose. During our VISTA meetings once a month they would share how many new friends they made, and how much they enjoyed learning new cultures from the people they tutored.

Students receiving certificates after the program.

Students receiving certificates after the program.

With the experience developed as an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer, I feel that anyone can create some mission, some program, to help people living with poverty achieve the “American Dream.” For me, that program was in support of low-income families who had immigrated to our community.

I am committed to living out a lifetime of service by continuing the ESL In-Home Program, and I encourage every volunteer I meet to do the same. Find a mission you can serve for life.

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