LITERACY FOR LIFE: Volunteer brings world experience to Carson City

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal

After spending 16 years volunteering with the Peace Corps overseas and with AmeriCorps Vista in the U.S., it was time for Florence Phillips to move on.

"But at 73, I wasn't ready for a real job," she said. "I didn't know what I was going to do with the rest of my life."

She thought about what she loved most about her Peace Corps service, and realized it was teaching people to read and write in English.

"I didn't have to leave the country," she concluded. "I could do here in Carson City what I was doing overseas."

She had learned Spanish while serving three years in Guatemala, so she found a Latino student looking to learn English in February 2004.

"We made an appointment," she recalled, "and when I got there, there were five other people who also wanted to learn."

She put up fliers asking for volunteer tutors and got two responses.

"It just grew from that time on," she said.

Five years later, there are now 81 community volunteer tutors teaching 147 students, with a waiting list of more than 100 people. And Phillips is now 78, "with the mind of a 40-year-old."

She said the growth of the program is indicative of the need.

"These numbers indicate that there is a significant demand for a program designed to quickly and efficiently teach the English language to those who want to learn," she concluded.

And they've seen tremendous success, including students who have earned their GEDs and 53 students who have gone on to become U.S. citizens.

Phillips can list other personal milestones they've reached as well.

"Some of them can now talk to their children's teacher, where they couldn't before. Or they can go to the doctor and explain what's wrong with them," she said. "I have one grandparent who is thrilled because she wanted to be able to read stories in English to her grandchildren. Now she does."

The nonprofit ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada pairs trained community volunteers with students. Tutors provide one-on-one instruction in the students' homes at no cost.

Phillips said it works well for people who cannot afford to pay for classes or who cannot meet the schedule provided by traditional classes.

"This learning process empowers these individuals," she said. "They become more productive within their community."

In addition to Carson City, the program is also available in Lyon, Storey, Douglas and Washoe counties.

"Most of the people who live in the 15 rural counties of Nevada have little or no access to schools that teach English as a second language," she said. "It is our vision that tutors in those counties be trained to teach non-native residents in those areas."

Their homework includes watching English television programs so they are better tuned into the language, and have English-speaking family members practice with the student on a daily basis.

Phillips said the program benefits more than just the student.

"As the elders progress in the language and help children with their homework, it becomes a great motivator for the children," she said. "It makes the program intergenerational."

It can also be a boost to local business.

"Many businesses have employees who are talented and hard workers, yet who possess little ability in speaking, reading or writing English," she said. "A program such as the ESL In-Home Program offers a unique opportunity for businesses to educate their employees almost free of charge - we ask businesses to fund the cost of books for their specific needs."

In addition to Spanish, tutors work with students speaking a variety of other languages, including people from Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, China, and foreign exchange students from Bahrain, Brazil, France and Mongolia.

"The more English they learn, the more they contribute their particular talents to the job market and their community," she said. "As students advance in their understanding of the English language, they develop self-confidence, become self-reliant and attain better self-esteem."


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