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5 Volunteers Who Make Minnesota Welcoming

Photos of volunteers from the International Institute of Minnesota

In honor of National Volunteer Week (April 19-25), we are highlighting some of the hundreds of volunteers who make the Institute’s mission possible. In 2019, nearly 300 volunteers tutored students, assisted with citizenship applications, served as mentors, taught public transportation, translated important documents and much more. Plus, hundreds of additional volunteers made our Festival of Nations happen. Meet some of these indispensable community members below.

Mark and Sharon Norlander

Mark and Sharon, volunteers at the International Institute of Minnesota

What is your role as a volunteer?

Mark: I help immigrants and refugees apply for citizenship. Occasionally I’m able to do that in French with those coming from French-speaking countries.

How long have you been volunteering with the Institute and what first inspired you to get involved? 

About a year and a half.  I’ve had an interest in languages and cultures since I was young and have worked my entire life with people from other cultures, primarily French, Japanese and Chinese. So, this seemed like a great way to use my intercultural experience and my ability to communicate with non-native English speakers.

Why do you volunteer with the International Institute? 

Because my wife and I have lived abroad. We know how lonely and isolated that can feel. Although we spoke French, we lived in an urban area. We had no family and few friends. But, we were sometimes the recipients of small acts of kindness from strangers and those totally changed how we felt. That is what I try to do when I volunteer. I try to show simple kindness and compassion and put a smile on the faces of those I’m helping.

What is your most memorable volunteer experience with the Institute? 

My wife and I were volunteering together one day, when a young couple from Madagascar came to apply for citizenship. Natasha (Immigration Counselor) assigned the wife to Sharon, my wife, and the husband to me. We are both French speakers and they were relieved to be able to speak French. At the end, we exchanged contact information. We met for lunch a couple weeks later and became good friends and have seen each other regularly ever since. We attended their naturalization ceremony last November. Coincidentally, some Vietnamese neighbors that we had befriended and helped with citizenship were naturalized at the same ceremony. That was a really neat experience.

What’s a fun fact about you?

Much to the chagrin of many, I like to tell “dad jokes.”

Sara Skinner

Sara Skinner, a volunteer at the International Institute of Minnesota

What is your role as a volunteer? 

I teach the Life in Minnesota class. It’s a cultural orientation for newly arrived refugees and other immigrants. We cover health, money, housing, U.S. laws and police, cultural adjustment, transportation, education, work and other community resources. It’s an eight-week series that repeats, so students can start at any time. We have a lot of fun and also are able to share experiences around what’s hard in adjusting to life in Minnesota. Our class was recently featured in the Star Tribune: ‘Life in Minnesota’ class: Shoveling, walking on ice and the nuances of ‘Nice’

I also teach English conversation once a week. I use the conversation class to expand on some things from Life in Minnesota. For example, I’ve helped many of our students find volunteer placements – coaching soccer, serving at animal rescue nonprofits, working in libraries, being reading buddies in the public schools and more. Currently, I have been encouraging the conversation students to share helpful info with each other about the stay-at-home order and COVID-19 – like how to make a mask, stretches to do while on Zoom, etc.

How long have you been volunteering with the Institute and what first inspired you to get involved?

I started in March 2018. I have always enjoyed learning about different cultures, and for several years had wanted to work with refugees. When I moved to Minnesota in summer 2017, I decided it was time to finally do it! I had heard that Minnesota was famous for welcoming refugees.

I searched for “volunteer with refugees St. Paul” and found the Institute. I applied to volunteer, but at the time, the volunteer coordinator didn’t have a position for me. I began volunteering with another organization, but when they called me and asked to interview me for the Life in Minnesota volunteer position, I was thrilled. It was the perfect opportunity to get to know refugees and other immigrants in my new community. I love facilitating workshops and using popular education techniques to help people change their communities for the better.

Why do you volunteer with the International Institute? 

As part of my orientation, I sat in on one of the Institute’s English classes taught by Stacy. I remember she had the students teaching each other how to make cupcakes in a mug. Her methods for language learning were spot on – active learning, students learning from each other, using different senses, etc. I knew I had come to the right place! Since then, I have been equality impressed with staff at all levels of the organization.

I also appreciate the Institute’s “one-stop shop.” I can’t cover everything in my classes, but I can refer students to other programs within the Institute and even walk them upstairs to introduce them to the right person. Because the services are right there, I have a lot more confidence that they will get the help they need.

What is your most memorable volunteer experience with the Institute? 

Last year, a woman from Ethiopia attended the Life in Minnesota series. She was so much fun in class, always asking questions (through the interpreter) and making us laugh with her astute observations. In the housing class, we cover fire safety, and she had a lot of questions about smoke detectors, fire alarms and fire extinguishers. We also practiced calling 911.

A few weeks later she came back to see me and told me there had been a fire in her apartment building. She heard the smoke detector going off in her apartment, pulled the fire alarm, ran outside, and called 911. I was so impressed that this recent immigrant, despite her limited English, had been the one to call 911 and alert the fire department. Education really does save lives!

What’s a fun fact about you?

I love to dress up in costume. I have lots of costume pieces for Life in Minnesota, like a lab coat for the doctor role play, a blazer for the bank role play, and a red shirt (complete with Target name tag) for the shopping role play. Lately, I wear wigs and funny hats (and sometime show off my face mask) to my Zoom conversation classes.

Ximenes

Ximenes, a volunteer at the International Institute of Minnesota

What is your role as a volunteer?

I first volunteered as a N-400 (citizenship through naturalization) application assistant with Immigration Services. I chose this position because I have helped many people with this application process, and I felt very comfortable doing it. Secondly, I am trilingual: Karen, Burmese and English. The language skill comes in handy with this position.

My other role is as a receptionist. At the reception, I answer phone calls, take notes, retrieve voicemails, call clients and greet clients. This role requires multitasking skills, and it could sidetrack you sometimes.

Why do you volunteer with the International Institute?

I feel grateful for what the Institute has done for me and for the greater good for newcomers. If the airports were doors to the country, the Institute is the living room of the country where guests can share their experiences and enjoy their newfound freedom. And that’s exactly what the Institute had shown me in 2004 and after 15 years in the U.S., I believe it is time to start paying forward for whatever I can.

What is your most memorable volunteer experience with the Institute?

I value every interaction I have with clients and staff. My most memorable experience will be seeing how Natasha (Immigration Counselor) can answer every question; it is beyond my imagination. She is like a living Google inside the Institute. I don’t think neither Google, Alexa nor Siri have as much information as her.

What is a fun fact about you?

I like to experience different foods around the world.

Dee Hein

Dee Hein, a volunteer at the International Institute of Minnesota

What is your role as a volunteer?

Most of my time has been involved with the Immigration Services team, doing data entry and following up with clients, making sure they received notices of appointments and understand the notices. Data entry can feel monotonous, but I appreciate the incredible level of detail involved in tracking immigration paperwork, and my attention to detail is useful. I also participate in citizenship application assistance and really enjoy that work.

How long have you been volunteering with the Institute and what first inspired you to get involved?

I’ve volunteered for a little over two years. I first ‘met’ the Institute through a choral project of the Minnesota Chorale and have also joined them in singing the national anthem at citizenship ceremonies. The exposure I gained from that original Chorale project led me to volunteer directly with the Institute.

Why do you volunteer with the International Institute?

I value immigrants to our country, and I am disturbed by the anti-immigrant and nationalistic elements of our society. I want to counter that negativity!

What is your most memorable volunteer experience with the Institute?

It has to be my experience assisting a young deaf man with his citizenship application. We had two interpreters: one American Sign Language and one a Certified Deaf Interpreter. Having the many citizenship screening questions that ask versions of “Did you kill, hurt, maim, torture? etc.” interpreted into sign language was disturbing to all of us!

What’s a fun fact about you?

I’m a choral nerd, sing in two high level choirs and am happiest when singing with others!


Thank you for you donating your time and talents, volunteers! We are so grateful to have you on our team.

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