Florence Phillips’ English lessons help immigrants succeed

Florence Phillips and new citizens
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Florence Phillips’ parents struggled to learn English when they moved to the USA. This inspired her to start a free program offering citizenship and English lessons to immigrants.

Unlike most 87-year-olds, Florence Phillips isn’t thinking about retirement. The daughter of European immigrants, Florence spent most of her childhood seeing her parents struggle to learn English. She spent time in the Peace Corps providing English lessons for that reason.

Proving that age is nothing more than a number, Florence enrolled in the Peace Corps in her late 50s. She completed three tours in the Peace Corps: in Kenya, Guatemala, and Jamaica. Although she felt fulfilled, she realized she wanted to do more.

Her compassion stems from her own childhood experience but also the lives of her parents. Born in New York to Jewish parents, she often helped her parents communicate with others when they couldn’t speak the language. 

Florence’s parents were refugees who fled Europe before the Holocaust.

Florence found that the people around her in America also needed help. Particularly, they needed English lessons. She decided to start a program teaching English to adult immigrants – a program that would help communicate in the their everyday lives.

Before this venture, Florence wasn’t even aware that so many immigrants lived in her new home state of Nevada. In her town of Carson City, immigrants make up around 22% of the population. But there was a lack of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.

Immigrants had to find their own way to pay tuition fees, buy learning materials, and make it to daytime classes.

Many immigrants work more than one job, and English lessons are often held during the day, when they have to work. Immigrants without reliable transportation also face the additional hurdles of getting to school on time or getting to school at all.

Having to attend traditional English lessons is, therefore, a barrier to many immigrants. So Florence has come up with a program to address these very issues. Her program is free for students and volunteer tutors teach whenever students are available. Students can learn at all times of day and even on holidays. The classes are personalized to each student and provide support for their individual needs.

Florence’s program, a non-profit called ESL In-Home Program of Northern Nevada, has offered English lessons since February 2004.

The program is run with the assistance of volunteer tutors. They have helped more than 6,000 adult English learners to date.

In addition to English lessons, Florence offers free classes to help immigrants prepare for their citizenship exam. The citizenship test is extremely expensive and answering the questions requires study. Along with providing free classes, Florence’s program also helps to raise money for the test costs.

Passing the test is about more than receiving citizenship. To many immigrants, it’s a badge of honor and a source of extreme pride. In addition to the pride that comes with citizenship, Florence’s English lessons are life-changing. Her classes ensure that immigrants can interact with people around them and integrate fully into society.

Today the organization has grown from providing a few services to providing ESL, citizenship, General Educational Development (GED), and computer classes.

Akudo McGee is a recent graduate from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. McGee has a Masters degree in European studies. Her field of focus is forced migration.

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