Good people. They are not hard to find. They come from all walks of life, and their contributions to the world are many and diverse. As we have seen since I started this feature in February 2017, some contribute large amounts of money to worthy causes, others just do small things that may go unnoticed. They are young, old, every ethnicity, race, gender and religion. The common bond they share is that they care about people. While giving money to good causes is certainly admirable, I always enjoy highlighting those who give of themselves — their time and energy.
Today I have the honour of introducing you to one great lady, Ms. Florence Phillips. She was born in New York in 1931, shortly after her Jewish parents came to this country from Europe prior to the Holocaust. Young people are most always able to learn a second or even third language much more easily than adults, and Florence was no exception. Her parents struggled to learn English, and for most of her childhood, Florence served as their interpreter.
“I did all the translations for them. I saw how they struggled being new to a country and not knowing the language.”
For most of her life, Phillips worked various desk jobs. Then, in her late-50s, she enlisted in the Peace Corps. She served three tours—in Kenya, Guatemala and Jamaica—working on community-building projects and teaching English. When she returned to the U.S. after her last tour, as she said in one of her videos, she found she had “nothing to do”.
“It came to me that I didn’t have to leave the US or my hometown to help. I could do here what I did overseas.”
She volunteered with AmeriCorps, a voluntary civil society program supported by the U.S. federal government, foundations, corporations, and other donors engaging adults in public service work with a goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” She moved around the country, eventually settling in Carson City, Nevada, where immigrants comprise some 22% of the population.
She started out by contacting some of the immigrants, and one woman asked her to come for a visit. When she arrived, she found five people, three of whom spoke no English, all eager to learn. As she worked with this family, teaching them to speak the language, word spread and before long she was getting dozens of calls.Now, Florence is an energetic woman, but even so, it soon became more than one woman could handle. And thus, her ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada was born. The organization is a nonprofit that provides free ESL (English as a Second Language), citizenship, GED and computer classes and relies strictly on volunteers. Started in 2004, they have thus far helped more than 5,000 people become more proficient in English.
Recently, Ms. Phillips was interviewed by CNN’s Laura Klairmont … let’s listen in, shall we?
Laura Klairmont: What are some of the barriers that get in the way of immigrants accessing English classes?
Florence Phillips: It was amazing to see how many immigrants there were that wanted to learn English. I got calls from all over Nevada. Many of these immigrants could not attend ESL classes because the schools and other organizations have a set schedule, and their times were not convenient for the student who works three jobs. So, my program teaches morning, noon, night, weekends, holidays. We provide these services at the times and days that the student is available and wherever the student is or can be. My program is very flexible.
We teach English on all levels to immigrants and refugees in Northern Nevada who want to learn. There is no other program like this in the state. We give the students personal attention; I match them with a tutor. We teach at no cost to the student.
There are people who were living in rural counties and in other counties where they did not have transportation if there was a class available for them to go to. If they lack transportation, just had a baby, are sick or disabled, we will tutor in their own homes or the tutor’s home.
Klairmont: Your program also provides free classes that help people prepare for their citizenship test.
Phillips: It is a very difficult test. A lot of Americans say they could not pass. These people have to know the answers to questions about the branches of government, how many senators there are, etc. It’s a lot of history, a lot of civics, a lot about our government. They have to know how to write, how to read. They have to know how to converse in English with the interviewer. We do all of that for them. We have a mock interview at the end of the class so that they know what to expect when they go for their exam. It takes a commitment of coming to a 12-week class. It takes a lot of memorization.
To apply for citizenship today, it costs more than $700. Many of our students cannot afford to apply. So, we help to raise money to help these students apply.
Whether they’re working two, three jobs, they have to sit down and study every single day, and they make that commitment because it is their desire to become an American. My students inspire me because of their dedication, their commitment, their motivation to learn.
Klairmont: How has your work affected the lives of your students?
Phillips: I have students that were promoted to be supervisor. I get students who call me and say, “I was able to talk with the teacher about my child.” And I’m being told by the students that they went to the market and the clerk understood them. Those are the rewards I get as they progress.
My students love this country. They are very proud about being here, learning English, learning our culture. I see the pride when they say, “I am an American.”
In this day, when fear of immigrants is being manufactured by politicians, isn’t it refreshing to see people who are actually trying to help immigrants assimilate and become contributing members of our society, realizing that they have so much to offer. My hat is off to Ms. Florence Phillips, who at age 87 has more energy than I do at 67!