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Brightening the Beacon at Project Light: Interviewing Pam Steen

Updated: Sep 24

By Sandy Chase

Pam Steen, board secretary, facilities manager, and mentor/teacher continues to ensure that Project Light brightens the lives of adults wanting to learn and/or improve their English so they can teach their children; become citizens; master computer skills; and learn about the job-search process—ultimately giving back to their community.

Pam has always been on a mission. Teaching people of all cultures has enhanced her life while helping to bolster theirs. Volunteering at PL fulfills those goals.

Executive Director Elena Farkas says, “I’ve known Pam as a teacher and board member. She always steps up when I need extra help. Pam loves her students and interacting with others.”

Elena explains how Pam continues to improve PL, saying, “By teaching our students, she’s

gained special insight into how the school functions, critical for a board member. She also seeks donations and participates in our winter fundraiser.”

Elena affirms that her relationship with Pam has contributed to PL’s success: “By helping me expand my knowledge about the city and the Manatee County School District’s (MSD) history, she’s helped me better understand the dynamics of the community that the school serves.”

Pam has been a professional ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) educator since 1979. Applying a master's degree in Linguistics (University of Illinois), she’s taught listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills at public schools and community colleges. Additionally, being bilingual (Spanish certification), she’s instructed that language.

Before joining PL, Pam had retired from MSD as an ESOL specialist, training teachers who

pursued an ESOL endorsement so they could teach English language learners while complying with state laws.

Elena speaks for many when she says that Pam advocates for low-income communities in a variety of ways.

“She helps foster our mission by attending Project Light events organized by the MSD, meeting with parents—spreading the word about PL’s quality day and evening adult classes. She distributes books and supplies—always leaving the message that it’s essential for parents to learn and read English so they can be role models for their children.”

Pam is always available to her students—and other PL learners—providing them with her cell phone number.

Through mentoring, she also encourages students to support their children—enhancing family life. Leah has benefited tremendously from Pam’s dedication and philanthropy. By providing guidance, information, and financial assistance, she’s brightened Leah’s path to financial independence.

Besides mentoring, Pam has helped contribute money for a two-bedroom rental apartment so that Leah and her son, AZ, could move out of her mother’s home and start anew. Promoted full-time as a manager at an Ellenton Outlet shoe store, Leah has become more financially responsible, paying for utilities, food, and other expenses. What’s more important, Leah can now support her son so he can succeed in elementary school—and the future.

“Leah has a tremendous work ethic—tackling tasks quickly and with fervor,” says Pam.

“Educated in Manatee schools, Leah helps AZ with his academics. And it’s paid off multifold because he’s now in advanced math. She’s been looking for a soccer team/league so he can enjoy the life of an active third grader.”

Deflecting the spotlight, Pam beams: “Leah is making it on her own.”

Leah has only praise for her dear friend:

“I had the pleasure of meeting Pam while working at the mall. Little did I know that our teacher-student relationship would one day turn into a genuine friendship that I would cherish for the rest of my life. Pam inspires me, encouraging me through my life's obstacles and even lending her time to care for my son and help him with school studies. She’s an angel on Earth.”

  • Why do you volunteer at Project Light?

After retiring, I learned that Elena had developed a curriculum focused on different proficiency

levels for PL students. Impressed, I wanted to get behind it. Some of my friends in the ESOL department urged me to learn more about the new, improved PL, and they thought I could volunteer there.

  • Why did you join the board of directors?

Soon after, one of my former colleagues, a Haitian woman, asked me to join PL as a board

member, and once I agreed, Board President Emeritus Charles Cunningham, who coordinates the

citizenship program, interviewed me. That was 3 1/2 years ago.

If I’m going to spend my retirement years pursuing my dream, I want my efforts to be quality

and well-spent. PL is a perfect fit.

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

I believe that my past career meshes with PL’s dedication to teaching adults English language

skills, empowering students to function at home, succeed on the job, and improve the


I’ve been teaching Level 2 (of six levels) English writing for two years. I invited my students to

an MSD Back-to-School event at Manatee Technical College (I manned a booth) so they could

build some career goals by seeing the high-quality programs offered at the school.

  • Besides writing and distributing monthly minutes, what other responsibilities do you have as a board member?

All board members were asked to assume an additional role, and I chose facilities manager

because I had renovated a few houses, and I believed I could be an asset.

Since that time, we did some landscaping: planted bushes, cut trees; and cleaned the area.

Perhaps this winter we’ll ask students, the board, and others to help with improving the grounds.

  • What are PL’s challenges? Rewards?

Let me begin with our rewards. Because of the foresight of so many: our altruistic volunteers, professional staff, and dedicated sponsors, our students are succeeding and achieving their academic/employment goals. You can hear their pride when they share how PL is helping them help their children.

Unfortunately, challenges exist. But PL is determined to persevere—refurbishing our building and improving our programs.

I need to provide some history. Our original building—an old garage—has been converted to six classrooms, offices, and a library. We no longer have the thrift store to help with financing. 

Board President Cheryl Evans has sought out new avenues of funding, and PL looks forward to making more money available when we hold our annual December fundraiser. 

But we need financial support for making repairs and other improvements—another challenge to upgrading our building. We sought bids during COVID, but many businesses weren’t available.

We couldn’t find employees who could do the work we needed.

But we were fortunate to receive a grant from the Selby Foundation for 40K, which we used towards upgrading and painting our building façade; getting a new door and hurricane windows; installing entry awnings; and resealing and painting our fenced-in parking lot. 

Even with our repairs, we need to reroof. We’re slowly setting aside money in our roofing fund.

But we need 30K, so we’ll have to seek a grant.

Elena is working with Cool Today to determine what needs to be done to create better air flow inside the building.

Rewards outweigh our challenges. We’re determined to support our students and—community.

  • Where else do you volunteer?

I volunteer on my condo’s grounds beautification committee. I don’t have much time to focus on

other volunteering.

  • What are your pastimes?

I enjoy decorating my new condo, walking my dog, meeting friends for lunch and dinner, and gardening when the weather’s cooler.

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

Volunteering is like exercise. Once you do it, you feel so much better. Volunteering at PL is win-win because the adults you mentor feel better too.

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