Helping Immigrants in a Nicer Florida

A photo of a man and a woman sitting next to each other at a table, smiling at the camera.

Since I retired seven years ago, volunteering with new English learners has been my passion. I’ve participated in several international programs through Global Volunteers in Cuba, Romania, and Greece, practicing conversational English with students. And, until they closed their doors in December 2021, I had many great experiences volunteering with students from all over the world in ESOL classes for immigrants at the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center at Mirror Lake in St. Petersburg. 

After much research, I recently connected with Dr. Maya Lane, president and founder of NicerFL, Florida Newcomer Immigrant Educational Center, Inc. Dr. Lane manages programs in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota, and Manatee counties with the mission of “helping immigrants overcome personal, professional, and cultural challenges of integration through individual tutoring and mentoring.” The program has combined about 100 students and 40 tutors. 

NicerFL volunteer Ellie Wojtowicz and students.

Dr. Lane’s focus and dedication to this nonprofit is impressive. She encourages independence and imagination from volunteers, making it a challenging and fun experience. Dr. Lane, who immigrated from Bulgaria, understands the isolation and uncertainty these students face. Her background is teaching English for the last 30 years in public schools and colleges, including USF. She has an agreement with USF Tampa where the students can do internships with NicerFL, and she is hoping to partner soon with USF St. Pete and St Petersburg College.

I’ve been volunteering at the Pinellas program since it opened about six weeks ago. It’s a welcoming environment, free to students of all ages, and the current group of students are from Russia, Ukraine, and Hungary.

The two students I’m currently tutoring, Sofiia and Alexander, are from Ukraine and have been in the United States about two months. They speak some English from classes they took in Ukraine but are eager to improve their language skills and enter the workforce as soon as possible. We work on increasing their vocabulary, do mock interviews, and just get to know each other. Recently we talked about Halloween, Easter, and Thanksgiving traditions. We text once or twice a week to plan for what we will focus on in our next session and discuss what’s important to them.

Me with my Ukranian student, Sofiia.

As a volunteer, I especially enjoy the format as it allows for some creativity. Each session is about what the student wants help with, not the tutor following a preset lesson plan. Because each student has different needs, each tutor tailors their session to that group or individual. Some just need to be pointed in the right direction – how and where to get a driver’s license or apply for a social security card. Others have little or no English. Meeting at the Barbara S. Ponce Library has the added benefit of offering students an opportunity to use the library facilities like computers, printers, and reference materials.  

Sofiia and Alexander tell me they found out about NicerFL via a Ukrainian Facebook group and were introduced to Dr. Lane who invited them to participate in the weekly conversation class. Sofiia says, “Our tutor teaches us new vocabulary and helps us with assimilation in many ways like – where to grocery shop, buy furniture, and important little things. In our free time, we enjoy most going to Treasure Island to watch the sunset.” Both Sofiia and Alexander are eager to assimilate in every way. Their goal is to improve their English, understand our culture, and to be part of the greater St. Petersburg community.

 “What is so impressive about America is the scale of everything,” Sofiia says. “The United States is so big, with different time zones and such varied job opportunities. The most difficult thing is waiting for working documents as we are eager for employment. Everything else is clear to us.”   

Founder Dr. Maya Lane, standing, works with students at NicerFL.

As a tutor, working with NicerFL has been rewarding in so many ways. It puts a real face on what we see in the news every day. Sofiia and Alexander are so appreciative and positive about the time we share, and thank me several times at the end of each class. I often leave with tears in my eyes. I am appreciative of the insight and understanding I have gained about their country and its people. And I am happy to be small part of making this monumental change in their lives a little easier.

When my fellow volunteer Dale and I spoke recently, he was on his way to donate furniture to one of his students. Dale tells me, “I try to put myself in their shoes. Tutoring the Russian immigrants I work with is one of the highlights of my week and I am moved by their life experiences.” He tells me he hopes after each session they feel they’ve learned a little more English and feel more optimistic about their new life in the United States.

Ukrainian student Sofiia proudly displaying her new Florida driver’s license.

NicerFL volunteer and St. Petersburg resident Ellie had this to say about the program: “Each week the experience of tutoring immigrants impressed upon me how lucky I am to learn from them. While they are building vocabulary, I am equipped with lessons in empathy, the immigration system, and the expansion of my worldview. I support young adults on the job hunt by reviewing resumes, and engage children with games of charades, memory matching, and ‘I Spy.’ I am proud to participate in the community this program fosters.”

Volunteer Linda from South Pasadena agrees, adding, “The refugees I’ve been working with are from Ukraine and Russia at the beginner level. My students are resilient and determined. It’s a rewarding and inspiring experience.”

These newcomer students want to learn but are often dealing with personal and employment obligations and often cannot attend other scheduled classes available in the county. Others, especially the beginning speakers, may struggle in large classes. The NicerFL program offers a good alternative – an easy, welcoming environment that sets the stage for a successful learning experience.

Learn more about volunteering or donating at The program is currently looking for classroom space in St. Petersburg and welcomes new partnership opportunities.