Volunteer with a Passion for Teaching: Amy Rae Foss

When Amy Rae Foss first visited the International Book Club at International House, she had no idea how that decision would impact her life … or how she would ultimately impact the lives of so many immigrants and refugees working to make a better life for themselves in Charlotte.

Amy Rae Foss

Amy Rae Foss Volunteer Citizenship Instructor

Originally from Minnesota, Amy Rae ended up in North Carolina after a three year stint as a Middle School English/Language Arts teacher in Arkansas. She works now for a healthcare software company and travels extensively to train medical personnel.  Despite her hectic travel schedule, she always makes time to get back to Charlotte for her work as a Volunteer Instructor for Sunday afternoon Citizenship Classes. “I am actually rarely in Charlotte”, Amy explains. “There are times when I schedule my travel plans to get back to Charlotte just in time for Citizenship training, and then leave town again right after class.”

Why would Amy Rae make such a sacrifice in her travel plans? That’s easy for her to answer. “Education is something that I strongly value and I feel passionately that everyone – including people of all backgrounds – should have access to educational opportunities. Which is what I love about International House – it brings people together from all over our community and the world. ”

Citizenship Class with AmyAs much as her busy schedule requires a certain amount of personal sacrifice to prepare for her classes, Amy feels like she gets as much, if not more, in return from her students. “For me, the most rewarding thing about teaching is seeing the light bulb go off for someone – to see their excitement when they remember something and can apply it. At International House, this goes a step further when our Citizenship students actually become naturalized citizens and call or email me to let me know that they have passed! I love being a part of helping them accomplish it and celebrate all their hard work and success!”

Amy Rae also feels passionately that her students contribute significantly to the success of the greater Charlotte community. “Our students are from such diverse backgrounds and all their cultures, languages, traditions, etc. are beautiful. They add so much dimension and diversity to the Charlotte community.”

She also reminds us out that immigrants who ultimately achieve citizenship are able to contribute even more to their community. “Studies in Charlotte have shown”, Amy explains, “that adults who become naturalized citizens are better able to support their families financially and that their kids do better in school. I think that is such an important thing to remember. At International House, we help get them there.”

Issues concerning immigration in the United States often become highly charged political debates filled with numbers and statistics. In her position as a volunteer at International House, however, Amy Rae has the chance to see behind those numbers – to see the human face of hopes, dreams, struggles, fears, and the drive to preserve and protect family. “Some border towns have banned families from adopting/fostering kids from Central America. For many Americans, those are the only faces they see when they hear the word “immigrant”. People forget all the nations that immigrants come from, the struggles they have faced to get here, the hard work that they do, their kindness, and their compassion for people. It all comes down to stories. If people were to take a minute to talk to and listen, actually listen, to someone not born in the U.S. they would come to understand the person behind the title.”

In the end, Amy Rae is like most staff Amy Rae Foss in Classand volunteers at International House: she receives as much, if not more, than she gives. “There are so many students and classes that I’ve worked with who have created special memories and hold a special place in my heart. They are the most encouraging and grateful people that I encounter in any given week. ”

And would she recommend that others consider volunteering at International House? “Of course people should volunteer at International House! Where and when else can you meet people from such diverse backgrounds and learn from them? In our multicultural world, having the skills to interact with people from all over are increasingly important. It’s just such a rewarding and fulfilling experience.”

International House is fortunate to have hundreds of volunteers like Amy Rae – all doing their part to create a better life for our newest neighbors, our community, and ultimately – themselves. Thanks, Amy Rae!


Dedicated Tutor Helps Student Achieve Her Dream


Megan Mavity, Maricela Boyzo, and Priscilla Sawicki

Growing up in Mexico, Maricela Boyzo’s father believed that children should work and not go to school. So when she arrived in the USA as a young bride, not only could she not speak English, but she could also not read or write in her native Spanish.

After years of struggling with a new language, Maricela enrolled in International House’s English Tutoring program in 2011 and was paired with IH tutor Priscilla Sawicki. Priscilla is a retired school teacher who spent many years overseas, and has a keen appreciation for the difficulties faced by non-native speakers as they attempt to navigate the details of everyday life.

Within moments of their meeting, Priscilla realized that Maricela faced many more challenges than the typical student in IH’s English program. “Maricela told me that she had never been to school. She didn’t even know the alphabet. I realized within minutes that Maricela and I were going back to 1st grade.”

Despite the considerable obstacles, Maricela was determined to learn, and Priscilla was there to help her every step of the way. They met twice a week during that first year and their hard work paid off. “I would reinforce the lessons taught in the ESL class at International House” explains Priscilla. “We were really able to concentrate on what Maricela needed to do and needed to understand. At the end of that first year, she had the basics and wanted to move on to citizenship classes.”

Maricela again showed incredible determination and went through 8 cycles of citizenship training to prepare for her USCIS citizenship exam. Maricela had to prepare to answer from a list of 100 civics and history questions featured on the exam, be able to read English, and also be able to write a sentence in English.

After two years of preparation, Maricela was ready to take the exam. This time, however, she would have to be on her own – without her teacher and good friend to guide the way. Fortunately they had practiced so many times that Maricela knew exactly to expect. She was apprehensive, but philosophical. “Yes, I was a little bit nervous. It’s normal!” After the exam was finished, Maricela’s excited daughter called Priscilla to give her the good news that her mother had passed the exam! Then, just two days later, Maricela attended her naturalization ceremony and in June of 2014 became a U.S. citizen.

As a citizen, Maricela’s job prospects are considerably improved, and she can travel more freely back and forth to visit family in Mexico. Priscilla is confident that the real winner in this story is Charlotte. “Immigration is something we all talk about now, but this path to citizenship is long and difficult and expensive. When you have someone as motivated as Maricela to overcome incredible obstacles it is a pleasure to have her as a fellow citizen. Maricela will definitely be an asset to our community.”

Priscilla would also encourage others to join her as a tutor at IH. “This has been one of the most rewarding things that I’ve ever done. Not only did I meet a really special person, but I helped her achieve her goal. It’s worth every minute. And the person you help is so appreciative.”

Maricela really is appreciative. With a huge smile and an arm wrapped around her friend she says, “A very good friend. I love her!”

Volunteer as an English or Citizenship Tutor

Want to make an immediate difference in someone’s life?   Become a tutor at International House!

Our next cycle of English Tutoring and Citizenship classes begins July 13th and we are currently looking for more tutors to help our students enrolled in these popular programs.

Volunteer tutors and students are matched in a one-on-one format during one of four available time slots on Mondays.   Tutor materials will be available at IH, along with a tutoring facilitator that can answer any questions.   All tutors will attend an orientation session on July 8th 6-8pm at IH to learn more about this program, answer questions, and prepare tutors for the new session.

Tutors and students only need to commit to an hour and a half a week for 10 weeks  (sessions are offered each quarter).  For more information, click >>here or contact Megan Mavity, Director of Education, at mmavity@ihclt.org or call at 704-333-8099 ext  110.


Summer Youth Tutoring Program Off to a Great Start!

YETP-Teacher-and-StudentOur Youth English Tutoring Program (YETP) is off to an exciting start!

On June 23rd, we kicked off our fifth summer of YETP.  For the next 6 weeks, our teams of tutors and teachers will be working at four local schools to improve the English fluency and literacy of about 250 children from non-English speaking families. This summer, YETP is taking place at Merry Oaks, Pinewood, Montclaire,  and Nations Ford Elementary Schools.  Each of these schools serves many students who come from high poverty backgrounds where English is not spoken at home.

YETP is a free program that has demonstrated remarkable success in avoiding the “summer slide” where foreign-born children often lose up to 3 months of reading growth while not at school. Our results last summer showed that 95% of our YETP students maintained or improved their literacy levels. YETP forms a crucial bridge to prepare students for the upcoming school year.

Monique Howell, YETP Coordinator for IH, is very pleased with the start of the program.  “Our 60 YETP staff members all share a passion to see these students grow and learn this summer. It is so inspiring to go into schools and see children smiling, laughing, and learning so early into the program. I am certain this summer is going to be a great one for YETP!”

Many thanks to our generous sponsors who have made this program possible:  Belk Foundation, Piedmont Natural Gas, Wells Fargo, PNC Bank, Duke Energy, and SPX!


Telling Our Story


Photo Source: launchhouse.com

By: Denise Cumbee Long, Executive Director

When I am out in the community and asked about International House, I am reminded of the importance of a good “elevator speech”.  Often, someone will ask me what I do, and that is easy enough to answer: I am the Executive Director of International House, an incredible nonprofit organization that has been part of the Charlotte landscape for over 30 years. But, then the next question is a bit harder:  “That’s nice. But what does International House do?”

What is the short answer to that question? International House is not a typical nonprofit with one focus that can easily be described in the span of an elevator ride. We are not a school, law firm, food pantry or homeless shelter. We do not simply address one issue or one area of human need. Rather, we are an interesting blend of programs and direct services that benefit foreign-born residents of Charlotte, international guests, and native Charlotteans. It is a challenge to sum up the good things we do in a few words!

However, I find that the best answer I can give to the curious person standing across from me in an elevator, at a social event or in a professional meeting is this: International House is the place where Charlotte welcomes the world. We do this in two ways. First, we provide direct services to low-income immigrants and refugees in order to help them become self-sufficient members of their new home country and city. Our legal clinic helps those with a path to citizenship gain legal status. With legal status comes better employment and family stability. For example, some of our clients have come to us virtually homeless, become naturalized U.S. citizens, and then gone on to start successful businesses. Learning English is also crucial for a newly arrived immigrant or refugee to become independent and self-sufficient. Our educational programs not only help these newest Charlotte residents learn English but also assist them with basic life skills and how to navigate the city’s systems and services.

The second way that International House “welcomes the world” is through our focus on building international understanding.  We strive to promote Charlotte as a global city and celebrate the increasingly international aspect of this evolving, dynamic community. Our cultural and international visitor programs introduce native Charlotteans to high level professional and student leaders from around the world. And, we offer great opportunities to learn about other languages and cultures through language conversation hours, international book groups, and Doorways, a social group for international women.

The elevator has arrived at the bottom floor.  Most of the time, the curious stranger smiles and tells me that International House sounds like an amazing organization. We often exchange business cards, and sometimes there are interesting conversations and partnerships that emerge later. Telling International House’s story is something I am always happy to do.  Perhaps you can help us spread the word, too!

Cross-Cultural Cooperation in the Classroom

ventures 1 daytime class

When you walk into an Adult ESL class at International House, you might see people from seven or eight different countries and linguistic backgrounds, all learning together!  Our Adult ESL program attracts participants from around the globe, coming together to master English and to become more familiar with life in the Queen City.  The tangible objective of these ESL classes is to develop students’ verbal and written proficiency in English.  However, the less tangible result of these classes is the benefit that the students receive as their time together allows them to build a close-knit community.

Adult ESL students at International House meet together for a total of four hours per week from September to December, working together with an instructor.  These hours spent together build up, developing relationships that can last even after the course has finished.  Although the students come from different linguistic backgrounds, they all live the language of compassion—a language that does not always require words.

Kristen Schmitt, instructor for the daytime ESL course, shared that her favorite part of working with the class been witnessing this compassion and connection in action.  She loves the way that “the more advanced students are very willing to help the students who are struggling…even though most of the students do not speak the same language, they still enjoy working together!”

The students in our Adult ESL courses are building connections and friendships that will carry on outside the classroom, helping make Charlotte’s international community that much more vibrant and that much more connected.

International House Gets Hands-On with “Hands On Schools”

ESL Class-Hands on Schools

International House enjoys partnering with Hands On Schools, an organization committed to supporting Charlotte-Mecklenburg students and their families, through its CARES (Coalition for Albemarle Road Elementary School) program.  The chief focus of CARES are the bimonthly Family Nights that take place at the school.  Family Nights offer consistent, enriching programs to students and their parents to best support and develop their quality of life.

At the CARES Family Nights, International House offers a class for parents called Charlotte University.  Taught in an ESL format, the class provides information to parents about important resources in Charlotte about which they should be aware—and strengthens their English proficiency while doing so!

The first Family Night took place on Thursday, September 26.  In the Charlotte University class, 25 parents enjoyed hearing from Officer Danny Hernandez from the CMPD on topics such as speeding, the role of law enforcement officers, and the proper procedure for license plate registration and displays.  The class also offered a safe space for parents to express their concerns about living in Charlotte, such as the fact that many people assume they are “Mexican,” when in reality they come from a wide variety of Spanish-speaking countries.  Officer Hernandez, himself a strong advocate for the Latino and Hispanic community in Charlotte, validated these parents’ concerns and expressed CMPD’s desire to support them and their families.

For the second Family Night on October 24, International House looks forward to partnering with CATS for a Charlotte University session on how to best utilize the Queen City’s transportation system.