Skip to main content

Omaha Magazine

Back to School: Former Elementary Teacher Now Educates Other Seniors

Aug 31, 2020 03:57PM ● By Kara Schweiss
educator Dottie Deines

Dottie Deines has kept remarkably busy since retiring from a 42-year teaching career in 2013. She’s in a book club; she participates in educator organization Alpha Delta Kappa; she’s active with First United Methodist Church and United Methodist Women; and she’s volunteered for organizations such as Food Bank for the Heartland, Siena Francis House, and the historic Prospect Hill Cemetery. She’s even done some traveling and golfing. 

Five years ago, friend Sherry Houston told Deines of an opportunity to return to teaching. Instead of children as her pupils, however, she’d be teaching other seniors. Instead of elementary-level language arts, she’d be teaching English as a Second Language classes at the nonprofit Intercultural Senior Center. 

Deines was determined to find room in her schedule. 

“I thought it sounded very interesting, so I decided ‘let’s go for it.’ And we’ve been a team for five years,” Deines said. Not only does she welcome the “exciting new challenge,” she added, “I wanted to help our immigrant seniors feel welcome in the United States and know that they are valued individuals.”

ISC was founded in 2009 by Carolina Padilla to serve elderly immigrants in the community. ISC’s clientele has branched out from primarily Latino seniors to seniors from many other countries including Sudan, Somalia, Bhutan, Nepal, and Burma. It also is open to native English speakers. With bilingual staff members and interpreters, and door-to-door van transportation available, ISC helps individuals overcome barriers to participating in its classes and activities. And while ISC primarily functions as a community center, the organization also assists struggling seniors with support services like a food pantry and meal delivery. 

“Here they have a safe place to meet people, eat, exercise, dance, and learn new skills. I really do believe that does bring joy and a purpose to their lives…they have so much to offer and they have years of experience to share,” Deines said. “I really think being together expands their horizons outside of their home and family, and I think they’re happier and healthier when they’re interacting with their peers. I have seen all of this while I’ve been here, and it makes me happy to be a part of all of this.”

Padilla praised Deines’ enthusiasm and commitment as a volunteer ESL teacher, calling her a “very creative communicator.” She’s seen Deines’ students grow from knowing no English words to being able to have basic conversations. 

“Our seniors love her. Her interactions with them have enabled them to have more confidence in their English,” Padilla said. “I think this makes learning a positive experience for our seniors, who come from different backgrounds. Dottie has accomplished a lot, and we’re so lucky to have her.”

Deines said she respects the life experience and perspective of her students, which enhances their ability to learn new skills at any age. “They’re willing to take risks that will surprise us.”

“Everybody is able to learn,” Padilla said in agreement. Because they’re not rushed or pushed through curriculum, she explained, the senior ESL students at ISC learn at a pace that’s comfortable for them. Student feedback reports that not only does Deines make class fun, “She teaches in a way that everybody ‘gets it’…People are paying attention and appreciate what she does.” 

Her decades of teaching elementary school have served Deines well in teaching adult learners, certainly in engaging students in group instruction, but also in such tasks as developing lesson plans and creating teaching aids. 

“And it did instill in me a love of helping others,” she said. “An added bonus is getting the hugs.” 

The volunteer work is rewarding, Deines said, because she knows she’s “making a positive impact” on the lives of her students. Plus, as a senior herself, she and her pupils can relate to each other. 

“I think seniors like myself should volunteer because we all have gifts and talents to share. There is no better feeling than knowing you are helping someone else and contributing in positive ways,” she said, adding that her students teach her in return. “Learning about customs and cultural difference reminds me how much I can learn from them.” 

With seniors being a population particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the pandemic has necessitated the temporary suspension of most of ISC’s center-based services, although some have been converted to virtual platforms. Padilla said clients miss the in-person social interaction—so do staff and volunteers—and the recent separation has emphasized the importance of ISC to the community. Deines, who has reached out to students with lovingly handmade greeting cards, said she’s eager to return to her classes and the students who have become her friends.  

“I do think, although these times are difficult, that we’ll all be back together,” she said. “We’ll get through it.” 

Visit interculturalseniorcenter.org for more information on Intercultural Senior Center. 

This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.