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English learning classes


by Sandy Chase

For more than five years, volunteer Matt Suddes continues to create a pleasurable learning experience for Project Light students who are fortunate to study basic English skills in his Beginner Level 1 and 2 classes. He strives to ensure that attendees will succeed in their community, even teaching their children the importance of education.

Project Light Board President Cheryl Evans says, “Matt is a dedicated volunteer teacher. He embraces the mission and vision of the nonprofit organization and implements them in his classroom. We couldn’t be prouder to have Matt on our team!”

As Cheryl points out, Matt goes that extra mile, just as he does when cycling, one of his favorite pastimes besides reading:

“Matt is that go-to guy. He reaches out to other teachers and helps when needed. Most days he arrives early and will stay late to plan and prepare for the next lessons. Matt also helps with basic upkeep of the facility. When he sees something that needs to be done, he does it. That’s all wonderful, but I really appreciate his positive outlook and approach to all that he does at Project Light.”

According to Matt, PL continues to expand its resources offered to immigrants under the

leadership of Executive Director Elena Farkas: offering language, computer, and citizenship classes. Becoming part of that change, Matt is even more passionate about supporting his students.

Elena’s testimonial says it all: “In many cases, Matt is my back; I can always depend on him. He is a modest man—with a curious mind and a big heart. I consider him part of my family. We can discuss things outside school.”

Wanting to improve, Matt thrives on self-learning. Elena says, “Last year, he took time to study piano. He enjoys listening to classical music. Matt also completed the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course to improve and enhance his instructional techniques. He’s a great role model for our students.”

Agreeing with others, Marva Duley, a PL fellow volunteer teacher, captures how Matt motivates others, students and teachers alike.

“Before volunteering at Project Light of Manatee, I visited Matt’s class to see whether I wanted to teach at the school. An absolute joy, he introduced me to his students and asked me questions about myself. I answered in Spanish and English, exciting the adults that I was able to speak their language.”

That’s when Marva knew that she wanted to volunteer at PL: “Matt is kind and patient towards his students, having complete control while presenting the lessons. He makes learning pleasurable. During that day, the students had fun and asked questions. What especially impressed me was that they sought him out just to chat.”

Matt attributes his 35 years as a Publix employee, where he learned how to interact with all people, saying that he uses that skill to mentor PL students. Advocating the Publix mantra, he ensures that learning in his classroom is “a pleasure.”

And Project Light is grateful for him going that extra mile—for students, board members,

teachers, and himself.

● How did you learn about Project Light?

I volunteer at Saint Joseph's Catholic Church with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, whose

mission is to assist those who are suffering. At the society, I learned that in Manatee County, there was a nonprofit that helped address challenges, especially for those who needed to learn English to improve their life and that of their family.

I screen calls and schedule appointments for people who meet society’s criteria. If the client doesn't meet our eligibility requirements, I refer them to another agency if possible. We have meetings twice a month and try to refocus on our mission.

● What about Project Light inspired/inspires you to volunteer?

I wanted to help people learn English, and that is what continues to motivate me today. PL’s mission meshes with mine: to teach adults English language skills that are necessary to function at home, on the job, and in the community.

● How has PL changed during your five years?

Elena has instituted new resources, including apps that students can use on their phones to broaden what they learn in class.

She has also instituted standardized tests (CASAS) to identify each student’s needs and their progression/completion of the ESOL (English As a Second Language) program approved by the FDOE (Florida Department of Education) and NRS (National Reporting System for Adult Education) for federally-funded adult education programs.

● What have you learned from your students?

I have learned about struggling to succeed while learning a new language. I’ve also learned about different cultures.

What do Beginner Levels 1 and 2 look like?

Levels 1 and 2 deal with basic vocabulary, paragraph composition, and basic verb tenses.

● What other levels have you coached?

During my five years, I have taught all four levels of the Ventures textbook series, which focuses on the immigrant learner and life skills. This series provides teaching materials, workbooks, and follow-up worksheets. There’s also a Teacher’s Toolkit, which includes role-playing, conversation cards, and partner dictation.

● What are your challenges?

The main challenge is keeping students focused while trying to have fun and learn. I

admire—and have learned from—other volunteers. And I’m rewarded because I come away with a positive feeling that I’m supporting others in their transition to life in our great country.

● What would you like to tell others who are considering volunteering?

I would tell prospective volunteers that working at Project Light is very rewarding because you’re nurturing others so they can adapt to living here.

By Dania Evans

Project Light of Manatee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing education and support to underserved communities, celebrated its third annual fundraiser, Bubbles, Beats, and Bites, on December 1st at the elegant Selby Auditorium in Sarasota, FL. The event was a tremendous success, bringing together the community for an evening of entertainment, philanthropy, and celebration.

The night kicked off with the soulful and enchanting sounds of live saxophone performance by the talented Boris & Sax, setting the perfect tone for the evening. The stage came alive with the captivating voice of one of Project Light of Manatee's own students, Junior Clerge, who mesmerized the audience with his heartfelt singing.

Art enthusiasts were in for a treat as the live auction featured a collection of stunning pieces generously donated by the renowned artist Siyuan Chen. The bidding wars were fierce as attendees vied for this unique artwork, with all proceeds going towards supporting the noble cause championed by Project Light of Manatee.

The ambiance was further enriched with a silent auction, offering an array of items that ranged from exquisite experiences to coveted memorabilia and bottles of rare wine. Guests eagerly participated, contributing to the overall success of the fundraiser.

The evening also featured a delightful dance performance by Susan Szantosi and her talented students, showcasing the power of movement and expression. The audience was captivated by the grace and skill displayed on stage.

As the night unfolded, the energy soared with a DJ dance party that had everyone on their feet, dancing the night away. The infectious beats and lively atmosphere created the perfect conclusion to a memorable evening.

An event of this magnitude would not have been possible without the generous support of sponsors who believe in the mission of Project Light of Manatee. Special thanks go to USF Hospitality, ProCare Association Management, Hascall-Denke, Goddard School, Chapman Law, and special sponsors, SouthWest Airlines, Sanches & Sons Honey, D's Breakfast & Burgers, and Crafted by Yudi whose commitment to making a positive impact in the community helped make Bubbles, Beats, and Bites a resounding success.

The tireless efforts of Project Light of Manatee's board members and the dedication of the students who volunteered at the event deserve heartfelt appreciation. Their passion and hard work were instrumental in creating an unforgettable experience for all attendees.

Food enthusiasts were treated to a delectable spread provided by USF Hospitality, and the event's spirits were lifted by the delightful wines and bubbles courtesy of Vino Bistro. Their contributions added a touch of culinary excellence to an already spectacular evening.

In conclusion, Bubbles, Beats, and Bites marked a milestone in the journey of Project Light of Manatee, bringing the community together for a night of joy, generosity, and shared commitment to making a positive impact. The funds raised will undoubtedly make a significant difference in the organization's efforts to empower and uplift those in need. As the curtains closed on this successful event, the spirit of giving and community collaboration continues to shine brightly at Project Light of Manatee.

by Sandy Chase

Jack Francis commits himself wholeheartedly to anything he undertakes, whether it be as an Information Technology (IT) professional or currently as a volunteer Project Light Level I instructor of adults and board members.

Volunteer fellow PL teachers have nothing but praise for his dedication to his students.

Emily DiSammartino says, “Jack has added so much to the dynamics of our Project Light faculty. He truly cares about his students and lets them know by praising them and his extreme patience as some struggle to learn. You can tell when you enter Jack’s classroom that he loves what he is doing. He’s making a difference in a lot of lives.”

Jack’s guiding light is his unfaltering thirst for knowledge, saying, “Learning from my students and PL teachers is exciting. I strive to apply my updated teaching skills with different level students.”

Highlighting Jack’s success, volunteer colleague Marva Duley says, “Motivated to learn from other faculty members, Jack continues to adapt his teaching style to best serve his students.”

Marva, who teaches Beginner English, attributes Jack’s successful journey as an educator because “He pulls from other PL teachers’ wisdom, experience, and expertise. Jack gains insights that have helped him direct his own path of learning, critical for nurturing his students to become independent learners.”

Fluent in Arabic, Spanish, and French and pursuing Hebrew enables Jack to explain grammar and vocabulary rules that students can relate to—bolstering his resolve to ensure that they will prosper in this country and be better prepared to educate their children—strengthening our community.

Learning also includes Jack’s mastery of computer science and programming “languages.” With over 25 years of experience and expertise in project management for such diverse industries as publishing, manufacturing, healthcare, software development, and training, Jack thrives on both sides of the educational coin: learning and teaching.

His students and board members benefit, as Board President Emeritus Charlie Cunnigham confirms:

“I have known Jack since he joined the Project Light board a year ago. I recall thinking when I first interviewed him that his background and communication skills would make him an excellent ambassador for Project Light’s outreach program.”

Charlie explains that as an immigrant, Jack knows firsthand what it’s like to overcome

educational and social barriers in order to be successful. His ability to integrate these experiences with the Project Light mission makes him an ideal campaigner when he networks with other organizations to raise public awareness and expand Project Light’s fundraising base.

“This expertise,” says Charlie, “coupled with Jack’s easy-going personality and excellent budget, organizational, and administrative skills acquired as a businessman, make him an invaluable resource for Project Light.” 

Volunteering is part of Jack’s DNA. While living in New Jersey, he assisted at Elijah’s Soup

Kitchen, teaching interviewing skills, resumé writing, and interview strategies in addition to preparing and serving meals and training new volunteers.

Relocating to this area hasn’t diminished Jack’s desire to continue volunteering. PL was the perfect fit.

Executive Director Elena Farkas says that the nonprofit is very lucky to have Jack as one of its dedicated volunteers.

“He continues to make a difference for Project Light and the community. Passionate about helping people: in the classroom and on the board, Jack focuses on educating adults so they can help their children succeed.”

Elena says that Jack’s outreach efforts have also encouraged sponsors and donors alike to support PL efforts. “He even wears his name tag, which features the school name—in his personal and/or business life—encouraging others to inquire about Project Light.”

Fortunately for our community, Jack is always available—going beyond—as he did last year when he volunteered to offer extra lessons on Saturday to help learners catch up with their lessons. A “soldier’s soldier,” he continues his Saturday mentoring.

Elena captures Jack’s essence when she says, “Excited about learning, he possesses valuable knowledge that he shares with his students and other teachers. Jack’s energetic, outgoing personality helps advertise the school, making its vision and mission visible among various community members and organizations.”

  • How did you find out about PL?

When I moved from New Jersey, I wanted to continue volunteering because I wanted to help improve people’s lives.

I checked some local organizations online and looked specifically at opportunities to teach immigrants and nonreaders. After looking at some of these organizations, a friend introduced me to PL. I reached out to Executive Director Elena Farkas.

During my first meeting—and after listening to Ms. Farkas—I decided right then and there to commit my time and efforts to teaching at Project Light. These two years have repeatedly rewarded me.

  • Why do you volunteer at Project Light?

As an immigrant, I want to give back to those who are in the same situation as I was. When I came from Lebanon, 43 years ago, I spoke very little English, with a heavy accent. It was extremely hard for me to learn English, so I relied on reading newspapers—with a dictionary by my side.

Remembering the challenges I faced, I now wish there had been a “Project Light school” when I first arrived in this country.

  • What makes Project Light special for you?

1. We welcome diversity and embrace the cultural differences of our students and teachers,

who are from many different countries, age groups, and social backgrounds.

2. Our teachers are dedicated to teaching at Project Light.

3. The training that’s provided for teachers and students alike is founded on sound

educational principles.

4. PL welcomes all with an open heart and extended hands.

  • Why did you join the board of directors?

Once I started teaching English, I discovered how rewarding it is to help students “function at

home, on the job, and in the community” (from our mission statement). With that in mind, I

wanted to get more involved and spread the word about our organization and our school. These

factors were more than enough to join the board.

  • What do you do as a board member?

Board members work as a team, sharing our vision and core values with other organizations, including educational, social, and governmental agencies.

My role is to help with fundraising and attend different community events. Networking gives me an opportunity to share ideas while collaborating with other organizations.

  • How do you believe that you’re promoting the nonprofit’s mission?

I promote our mission every day through teaching and public speaking. It is always a challenge when you are teaching a “foreign language” to adults.

  • What PL classes do you teach?

I teach Level 1, which is one step above the Basic Level. For the most part, my learners have little understanding of English. But they persevere—wanting to succeed—sometimes learning from one another.

  • What was/is your career?

Most of my background was in IT management. However, I taught computer programming as well. Throughout my career, I conducted seminars on different technical and nontechnical subjects. I trained employees and wrote technical materials and users’ documents.

  • As a board member and mentor, what are your challenges? Rewards?

The challenges are always finding more time to talk about Project Light: the organization and school. Asking others for donations, especially when most of them have never heard of Project Light or how we’re making a difference in the community can be challenging.

I experienced the same challenges back in the 90s' when I ran a campaign to raise funds for the United Way. I did this fundraising while I was employed by The Daily Record, a local Parsippany, NJ, newspaper. I have learned from different experiences and kept going.

Without a doubt, rewards—which are endless—outweigh any challenges. I have met many people, learned about different cultures, and seen adults improve their lives,

  • Where else do you volunteer?

I dedicate most of my free time to Project Light. I believe that to succeed in one mission, I need to focus on that mission—live it day in and day out.

  • What are your pastimes?

Between teaching and serving on the board and working part-time, I have very few pastimes. I use whatever time is left to read and learn other languages, including Hebrew online. I also exercise

regularly in order to keep my body fit as I do my brain.

  • You say that you thrive on learning, especially different languages. Please give some examples.

I learned the composition of some words, writing styles, and nuances of words in Hispanic countries. An added plus is that I continue learning about cultural and social differences, For example, in many Central American countries, the last name is the mother's maiden name, and the middle name is the father's last name.

  • What would you tell others who are interested in volunteering?

I encourage them to do so. Rewards last a lifetime. Volunteers are rewarded every time they help someone: the smile on others’ faces and the heartfelt “thank yous.”

Volunteering will bring you tears of joy, a sense of peacefulness, and build great self-esteem you’ve never felt before in your job or career because you’re helping others while benefitting from learning.

I tell them “Try it and you will get hooked.”

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