Mother-daughter volunteer team making a difference at Neighborhood House


A few years back, Deb Costanzo decided she wanted to volunteer to make a difference in something she cared about: immigration. She knew she wanted to give back in some way and decided that she could do the most positive work by helping immigrants increase their literacy.

Deb began her journey by attending a two-day training at Minnesota Literacy Council (MLC) to learn how to teach GED preparation and to be a classroom assistant in English language classes. MLC connected her with Neighborhood House, and she met with John Ashby (adult education manager) and began volunteering at Neighborhood House.

Deb said that she began assisting in a beginning English class one night a week, and most of the students were native Spanish speakers. One evening, she said a woman came to their classroom to announce that she was going to begin teaching a citizenship class the hour before the English class, and Deb got excited. “I ran after her to ask if she needed help, she was open to the idea, and we co-taught the class for a while,” she said. “Not long after, she needed to stop teaching, so now it’s me leading the class on my own.”

Deb said the citizenship class covers a lot of information that is necessary toward becoming an American citizen. Students learn the guidelines for eligibility, about the lengthy process, study topics (related to history, government rights and responsibilities), geography and the US Constitution.

The process to becoming a citizen is long and arduous. “The students study 100 questions/answers, fill out the application form, the N400, which is about 20 pages long,” she said. “Then in the interview, they answer ten questions (they need six correct to pass), demonstrate that they can read, speak, write and understand English. They have to live in the US for five years before applying (three if married to a US citizen). The process can take upward towards two years to complete before they even get an interview date.” The class has been so well-received that it went from having just one student to now more than ten students who regularly attend the class. Her class is attended by students from Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Honduras, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia and Nigeria.

Her journey in teaching has come full circle as she recently went to her first student’s naturalization ceremony and spoke excitedly about the event. “During check-in, everyone received a mini American flag. The judge did a roll call of all 88 countries represented in the room and when they called out the country’s name, people from that country stood up and waved their American flags,” she said. “It was a nice acknowledgement to honor both where people were originally from and now their new home in the US,” she said. “The lieutenant governor also spoke and said, ‘We share common values, and your citizenship will bring us diversity, new cultures and new ideas. We’re all the better for it.’”

Not only has Deb’s volunteerism helped her students, it’s also affected her daughter Kate, as well. After having to sit in on some of her mom’s classes, Kate said she was surprised to find that she was inspired. “I saw the difference my mom was making in people’s lives—the students were excited and the program is good,” said Katie. “I was looking to do some volunteer work to apply for the National Honor Society (NHS), so I decided to stay at Neighborhood House, but at the Food Market, rather than the classroom,” she explained. “I didn’t go in with the highest expectations—I thought I’d only come once a week for the last month of the summer to fulfill the requirement. But when I got here, I fell in love with volunteering!” Katie said that when she got home after the first volunteer shift, she sent an email to see if she could come twice a week instead of just one. “I really looked forward to coming in for the next shift and thought, ‘I wish I could do this every day!’”

In the Food Market, Katie interacts with people of all different cultures, and finds ways to communicate with everyone. “I find different ways to communicate with the participants if they have limited English skills. I use my hands, facial expressions—I even said ‘yes’ in Spanish a few times! A smile and a nod can go a long way,” she said.

And, Deb is a proud mom. “Working around a lot of people was a stretch for Katie—she’s an introvert. Through her work in the Food Market, she’s become more comfortable in new situations and interacting with new people,” she said. “It started out just as volunteering in order to be able to apply for the NHS, but turned into something different altogether.” Sidebar: Good news—Katie was accepted into the National Honor Society!

Deb said that Katie’s work in the Food Market inspired her. She wondered aloud that maybe she’d try volunteering with her. Katie’s playful side-eye said it all, “No, mom. Stay out of my space.”