A few weeks after my first time volunteering with the Nashville International Center for Empowerment (NICE), I was invited to participate in their weekly “Community Day” English class at a nearby high school. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when I arrived, I was warmly greeted by Karen, one of NICE’s adult education specialists. She was standing by a NICE sign hanging on one of the school’s side doors, and I was impressed by how a public high school had permanently teamed up with NICE to serve as a local community hub even during the after-school hours.
Karen guided me to the cafeteria, where all the tables and chairs were out and ready for the Community Day. Some other NICE volunteers were set up down the hallway to help families with the school registration process, and it was pretty amazing to see so many different activities going on all in one night. I was told that the high school itself has a really diverse student body, and with all the colorful, bilingual signs and a big mural filled with country flags, I could definitely believe it.
As we finished setting up, Karen shared that this week’s event was themed around stress and stress management. In the spirit of trying to make the evening more enjoyable and interactive than a typical English class, we brewed several varieties of tea that are supposed to help relieve stress. I learned that tea ceremonies are common practice in many of the students’ home countries, so we would all share tea together in a mini ceremony at the very end (and practice talking through sequences like making a cup of tea). I really appreciated Karen’s efforts to teach English that would be directly applicable to the students’ everyday lives and conversations, and everyone could certainly relate to this particular topic of stress.
To start off the evening’s program, Karen led our group of around 20 students through a group exercise of “where do you stand?” We started out with more basic, silly questions and laughed at our shared dislike of the cold and how we were all “dog people.” Things got a bit different, though, when we started talking about how many hours we worked per week and how much sleep we got. Many of the students would only sleep for at most four hours before having to go to work the next day, and they had extended work weeks. Their biggest source of stress was, almost unanimously, trying to make ends meet with their job while also learning English as quickly as possible. (About an hour into the event on this particular day, we had a few more people trickle in, arriving straight from work and still wearing their uniforms.)
Karen then asked everyone what they did for “self-care,” and there was a shared look of confusion among most of the students. Nobody really knew what “self-care” meant, and when we explained that it’s essentially taking time for yourself to relax and do things you enjoy, most of them laughed and said that they didn’t have time for that, only time to keep working. While everyone seemed light-hearted about this and how English classes with NICE were their “break for the day,” it was a reminder to a student like me, who oftentimes complains about my workload, that there are other people facing much greater challenges. Our evening together really illustrated to me (in ways that just reading about refugee and immigrant experiences can’t) how much grit these people have leaving behind their family and friends in order to try and make a better life for them all.
Many of the adults that I met that day came from Latin America in particular, and my partner for the one-on-one conversation activities, Isabella, had fled from Colombia and been in Nashville for seven months. She still really struggled with speaking in English, so I ended up switching back-and-forth between English and my relatively proficient Spanish. Isabella is the only person in her family and social circles to be in the United States, and she spends the bulk of her days working at a warehouse. At night, she takes English classes with NICE and practices on Duolingo until she falls asleep. She told me that she felt incredibly lonely on a day-to-day basis, but she was grateful to have met some new friends in similar situations through NICE. Isabella is probably 10 years older than me, but I was really glad that we were able to openly speak with one another about life in the United States and the difficulties of language learning. It was also the first time in my five years of studying Spanish that I had an extended, meaningful conversation in the language, and I was again reminded of just how isolating and limiting that language barriers can be. The moment definitely solidified my desire to keep improving my Spanish, as it was greatly appreciated by Isabella and the other Spanish-speakers that evening.
After we all finished the lesson plan and sat down for our tea break, Karen thanked all of us for our active participation and for sharing this time to reflect as individuals and as a group. Sipping on my lavender-infused tea, it was honestly the most content I had felt in the past several weeks. I had the chance to chat with one of the other volunteers, Amy, about her time with NICE, and she told me these weekly Community Day events were always her favorite because of the open and relaxed atmosphere.
Thinking back on the good time (and learning) that we all had that evening, I hope other people are also inspired to spend more time volunteering in their community. I personally wasn’t sure if I could really be a helpful English teacher or if the age difference between myself and the students would be awkward, but it certainly was not. People in their late 30s were genuine buddies with the younger students, and James, a student around my age, thanked me for speaking with him about college; he has been working full-time as a retail clerk in order to earn enough money to be able to go to school soon. Seeing everyone’s incredible work ethic and shared resilience was really energizing and motivating, and even when we were wrapping up our lesson, a new group of adults was arriving to go work on their GED classes.
I have so much respect for all the work that NICE and its team have been doing. They not only provide a childcare service that is enjoyable for both the kids and volunteers but also make a real effort to have engaging, consistent programming like “Community Day” that meets the needs of refugees’ and immigrants’ incredibly busy schedules. From all the kids and adults that I met from just these two experiences with NICE, it was abundantly clear that they really appreciate the support system that NICE provides them. The organization has helped create a constructive community where everyone builds each other up, and I’m excited to enjoy more time (and tea) with this group for the rest of my time here in Nashville.
All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.