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  • Natalie Nemes

Mary’s Might

This story is the first in a series about current and former volunteers at Sarah’s who have made a significant impact on our community. Sarah’s volunteers play a vital role in helping residents reclaim their lives and making the house feel like a home. We are inspired by their contributions to Sarah’s, and we are endlessly grateful for their support in carrying out our mission.

Today’s volunteer spotlight is Mary McGreevy, who discovered Sarah’s through a chance encounter while serving at jury duty. She helps residents prepare for their citizenship exams, drilling them on the test’s questions so that they can take the next step toward their new lives in the United States. By volunteering at Sarah’s, Mary says, she has been able to enact grassroots change that shapes lives in a very tangible way.

Mary McGreevy (right) with Sarah’s director Cheryl Behrent (left) and a former resident (center).

Mary’s journey to Sarah’s began with one obligatory component of being a U.S. citizen that almost everyone dreads: jury duty. After living in St. Paul for almost 30 years, she was finally called to carry out that widely deplored task that nearly everyone would rather avoid. But it was there, sitting in the courthouse jury assembly area, that Mary would have a fateful encounter that would lead her to Sarah’s door.

Among a crowd of people who were also waiting to see if they would be selected to serve on a jury, Mary sat down at a table and started making small talk with some other friendly women. One of her fellow potential jurors just so happened to be a woman who worked at Sarah’s, who readily shared her passion for the home’s mission of helping immigrant women recover from their hardships, adjust to life in the US, and accomplish their goals.

At the time, Mary volunteered as an English as a Second Language (ESL) instructor at a community center in south Minneapolis. While she enjoyed her work there, Mary found that it was becoming a bit too much of a time commitment for her, as she was preparing and teaching a lesson plan each week while working a full-time job and raising kids. However, she also had some experience instructing citizenship classes, and Mary had decided she wanted to transition to volunteering in that area of service work. Mary discovered that Sarah’s had a need for a dedicated volunteer to tutor a resident who was studying for the citizenship exam, and thus her work at Sarah’s began.

Mary began visiting Sarah’s once every couple weeks, quizzing the resident on the citizenship test until they could answer every question correctly. As many of the women at Sarah’s seek citizenship, Mary has gone on to help several of them study for the exam—and each and every one of them has passed after weeks of hard work.

The US citizenship test consists of 10 questions taken from a potential pool of 100, six of which need to be answered correctly to pass. While Mary helps the residents with rote memorization via flashcards and workbooks, she also assists them with preparing emotionally for the test in case of nerves or anxiety. Those taking the citizenship test are not allowed to have anyone else in the room with them, including a translator, which can often cause stress when it comes to such a pivotal, high-stakes moment. Mary also prepares the residents for any sort of test environment, whether that be a friendly examiner or a test administrator with a more clinical, distant demeanor.

After each woman aces her test, Mary takes them out to eat at a restaurant of their choice, whether that be a restaurant with food from their home country or simply a fast food place. She has stayed in touch with some of the women she works with, including one who has had two children since moving on from Sarah’s.

Mary’s goal in helping women through the difficult process of securing their citizenship, she says, is to be at least one friendly face that they encounter on their journey. She aims to be a kind and welcoming person who makes the obstacles that these women confront just a little bit easier to overcome. In many instances, immigrants grapple with impersonal systems that ignore their humanity—at Sarah’s, Mary is able to act as a force that counters that narrative.

While Mary has done other service work with various nonprofits and as a social worker, she finds Sarah’s unique in that its impact is direct and tangible. Residents clearly and definitively benefit from Sarah’s initiatives and programming, and staff and volunteers strive to help residents in everything that they do. We believe we are more than simply a nonprofit organization—we are a home with those we serve at its heart.

If you are interested in donating your time and energy to the women at Sarah’s, please visit our page to fill out a volunteer application.

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