Darien family members volunteer at same nonprofit

Volunteerism certainly runs in the blood of the Russell family of Darien since four members have volunteered for the same nonprofit organization — Building One Community (B1C).

Since 2017, Holly Russell has taught English Language and Learning classes at B1C.

Her oldest son Liam, 20, tutored English Language Learning all summer, and tutored children in the summer math program.

Holly’s younger son, Aram, 18, who is a freshman at Yale University, has helped with the summer reading program for children and their parents. The parents in the program don’t speak English at home.

Holly’s daughter Maggie, 15, a Darien High School sophomore, tutored in B1C’s summer math program. This fall, she is volunteering in the homework club, helping elementary school kids with their homework.

Building One Community

Based in Stamford, Building One Community (B1C) is a nonprofit organization that offers English and adult literacy programs, as well as legal services and workforce development.

B1C serves more than 3,400 people from over 70 countries. Some clients who come to B1C want to learn English for jobs, while others want to integrate better into society.

Clients are from diverse backgrounds and speak many languages including Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese, Portuguese, French, and Italian, as well as Hindi, Bengali and Vietnamese.

All services are free to clients. There are over 400 active volunteers.

Children who attend B1C come from Stamford public schools while adults come from all surrounding towns, as well as lower Fairfield County and Port Chester, N.Y.

The higher level speakers need help with conversation. “They talk about various subjects,” said Holly, who is a freelance writer. Her husband William is an attorney in Manhattan. “I give them insights on what words mean and correct them on pronunciation.”

She said her students are eager to learn.

“For example, we spent the month of July learning about The Star Spangled Banner — going over what the lyrics mean and its past and current history,” Holly said.

“In every class, we learn aspects of grammar and we practice pronunciation, which the students want to improve so they can communicate better going about their daily lives,” she added.

Holly teaches one class a week, year-round, and has from one to 10 students per class.

Some students come one time only while others return many times.

Liam, who is a junior at the University of Michigan, said he begins every new session by getting acquainted with his students.

“I start the first 15-20 minutes getting to know them, hearing about where they are from, and figuring out how much English they know,” he said.

One person that Liam tutored was from Ukraine. “He moved to the United States to get a job in software development, He needed to know English to get hired,” he said.

Liam said he likes helping people adapt to living in the United States.

“It’s important to make immigrants feel like they are welcome in our country,” he said.

Aram said that seeing the children reading with their parents made a very strong impression on him.

“It was to me a powerful experience because I remember bonding with my mom over all these storybooks,” he said.

Furthermore, he said what made his experience “even more special” is “the idea that a picture book is familiar across world cultures. That makes it an especially powerful means of teaching English because it’s recognizable, and the language is also simple enough that a child can understand it.”

During homework club, Maggie helps keep the elementary schoolchildren entertained with board games, books, drawing, and reviewing homework.

“I love working with kids,” Maggie said. “It’s really great to help them understand just how wonderful learning is.”

The games and curriculum for the summer programs at B1C are chosen by Stamford public school teachers.


Darien resident Catalina Horak, executive director of B1C, said volunteering at B1C provides a way to “experience what your community really is like.”

“We send the message that immigrants are welcome and are contributors and part of our community,” Horak said. “We need this message now, more than ever.”

Holly said she admires her clients in many ways. “They are so courageous to come to another country and not know the language,” she said. “They are very appreciative and they’re always kind and I admire their spirit.”

She plans to keep teaching at B1C indefinitely.

“I’m in it forever,” she said. “This is wonderful for me and I feel very fortunate that I can do it.

She added that teaching English language learners gives her an opportunity to give back. “I received a college education, which I was lucky to get. I am lucky to live in Darien and my children are lucky to go to/have gone to school here. I’d like to pass along the knowledge I have gathered over the years and share it with those who are eager to learn.”

B1C classes give students a “sense of belonging that I think is important,” Holly said. “I feel proud to help them get to know America and to feel welcome here.”

To learn more about B1C or about becoming a volunteer, visit building1community.org.