Giving Back Through Volunteering
Planting the Spirit of Volunteerism in New Citizens in Apopka, FL
From Benjamin Franklin to the present, volunteerism has been a defining value of American civic life. Americans have long used their First Amendment rights to assemble together to better their communities and address societal problems. For many immigrants, the type of organized volunteerism they encounter in their new homeland has a distinctly American flavor.
At the Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, Florida, students attend citizenship classes supported by USCIS’ Citizenship and Integration Grant Program and learn about a variety of civic engagement opportunities. In response, many volunteer both while they are studying for the naturalization test and after they become U.S. citizens. Most students, like many Americans, volunteer because of a personal connection and opt to stay engaged at Hope CommUnity Center because they are grateful for the support they received on their way to U.S. citizenship.
Despite being low-income themselves, the center’s citizenship students help every year with a food drive to collect canned and boxed foods for farmworkers in Immokalee, a very low-income agricultural and immigrant community near Naples, Florida. They have also contributed to the success of Hope CommUnity Center’s annual toy sale, where brand new toys are donated, priced at $.25 on the dollar, and displayed in a “Toy Store” where low-income parents can shop for their children. Parents feel the dignity of providing for their children, and the money raised from the sale supports youth programming at the center all year long.
Many students also choose to return to Hope CommUnity Center to assist with the citizenship program and encourage new students in their efforts to naturalize. Students who pass the exam and become citizens often return to class to celebrate their success and show other students that they can also succeed. Others choose to invest their time and effort more deeply. For example, Ariana and Jose are former students who are now U.S. citizens. During new student orientation each semester, they can be found at the registration desk, registering new students for Hope’s citizenship classes.
Likewise, Gerardo Sanchez, one of the center’s most active students, is a steady cheerleader for the new students, encouraging them to persist until they reach their goal of U.S. citizenship. He brings cookies to class and donates food for the center’s July 4th celebration. When the center acquired a new campus for its Pathways to Citizenship Program, Gerardo volunteered to help paint the new building.
Through its citizenship classes, Hope CommUnity Center’s students feel a connection highlighted by community, support, and gratitude. The guidance they received at the center demonstrated to them the meaning of one of Benjamin Franklin’s philosophies—that “one served not to save their soul, but to build a strong society.” And having been invited into American society as equals, the new citizens have chosen to live out our Founding Father’s ideals by giving back to the community around them.