Florence Phillips was born in New York to Jewish parents who fled Europe before the Holocaust.
Growing up, she experienced first-hand the burden of being a child of immigrants who didn’t speak English. Helping her parents interact with the outside world fell on her shoulders.
“I did all the translations for them,” Phillips said. “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.
After returning to the US in 1999, at age 69, Phillips realized there were countless people in her own backyard in need of her support.
“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 said.
She became an AmeriCorps volunteer and moved around the country, eventually settling in Carson City, Nevada. There, immigrants make up roughly one in five of the state’s population. Phillips met many adult immigrants who were struggling to learn English.
To address the need, she started the ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada, a nonprofit that provides free ESL (English as a Second Language), citizenship, GED and computer classes.
Since its inception in 2004, the nonprofit has helped more than 5,000 immigrants and their families.
Today, at 87 years old—when most people are deep in retirement—Phillips shows no signs of winding down.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Phillips about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: 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.
CNN: 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.
CNN: 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.”
Want to get involved? Check out the ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada website and see how to help.
To donate to ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada, click the CrowdRise widget below.