May Spotlight: Building Community through Language; A Interview with Mike Oliver from St. Marks Community Education Program

It’s a cloudless May morning in Dorchester, the kind of weather that makes it seem as if Boston has skipped Spring all together and jumped right into Summer, with the kind of heat that casts a sleepy spell over the city. On the corner of Roseland St. and Dorchester Avenue quietly stands the steeple of St. Mark’s Catholic Church and beside it, in the church’s old annex, is St. Mark’s Community Education Program. Although a passerby might not be able to tell, inside St. Mark’s is bustling with movement as people file in for classes, chatter filling the halls.  And one man, Mike Oliver, is at the center of the excitement. Mike is the Director and only full-time employee of St. Mark’s, which provides adult education opportunities to immigrants seeking citizenship and ESOL classes. The program is 100% donation and grant funded, and relies on the commitments from volunteers to run the show.

St. Mark's 6 (2)


St. Mark's 2

Along with support from incredible volunteers, Mike facilitates classes, organizes partnerships, and makes sure everything goes smoothly. He knows his students by name, writes grants, sweeps the floors and takes out the trash when they day is done.


When asked how St. Mark’s benefits the community and the population it serves, he was adamant to address how it can be difficult to quantify the success: “There’s no scientific way to measure it, I feel that improving language skills increases a person’s access to the wider culture and fosters more successful interaction with institutions, like health care settings, schools, and government agencies.” Many studies have shown that connecting immigrants with English classes and instruction heightens their chance at getting and maintaining a job. Also, almost one third of Boston’s immigrant population lives in the Dorchester area. The program at St. Mark’s gives working adults in the area access to citizenship classes, ESOL classes and conversation-based classes. Also, it is the only program in the Boston area that offers classes on Sundays, which is crucial for those trying to fit classes into busy work schedules.

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So what’s the key to running  dozens of classes on both weeknights and weekends? That’s where our volunteers come in. Boston Cares is proud to be coming up on our fourth year partnering with St. Mark’s. Not only do we regularly send volunteers to assist with classes, but we also have been grateful to use the St. Mark’s space for various trainings over the years.

Mike has very close relationships with the teachers, partners, and volunteers who make the program at St. Mark’s possible. “Volunteers contribute in a number of ways. Our experience has shown us that real progress is made in small groups. Volunteers make small groups possible, in these small groups, they can provide extra attention that the instructor may not have time for. They also provide critical feedback on students’ progress, become supporters and advocates for the program as well as a resource.”

Anyone who has spent time volunteering, especially in a one-on-one setting, knows how truly impactful it is for both the volunteer and student. Volunteering your time and energy truly sparks a pay-it-forward attitude, and the chance that your efforts with a student could result in them gaining citizenship, or feeling more confident speaking English, is truly rewarding.

When Mike was asked about what he finds most meaningful about his work, he humbly replied, “Knowing we played a part, no matter how small, in someone achieving their goal.”  

Looking outside Dorchester, Mike has big plans for how the St. Mark Community Education Program can grow exponentially in the coming months and extend its reach beyond Dorchester. He is planning to train volunteers to lead citizenship classes in libraries, health centers and other settings all around Boston.

If you are interested in leading citizenship classes, please attend our training on Saturday May 19th, 9am to 1pm at the Boston Cares office.

Or visit for more information.