Mary LeConey of Bethel works with a group of Tanzanian, Rwandan and Colombian immigrants Jan. 17 at Maine Immigration and Refugee Services in Lewiston. LeConey is one of four Bethel residents who teach English to immigrants every Wednesday. Language skills are crucial for the jobs these immigrants are facing, MEIRS Employment Case Manager Sid Degois said. Rose Lincoln/The Bethel Citizen

LEWISTON — As they do every Wednesday, Sharon and Seabury Lyon, and Mary LeConey and Melinda Remington, all of Bethel, crowd into LeConey’s car to head to Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lewiston.

Since last June, the foursome has been traveling there to teach English to immigrants.

They took on the roles of voluntarily last summer after someone at the West Parish Congregational Church expressed interest in teaching at the Lewiston center, Sharon Lyon said.

From there, the four connected with a group at nearby Gould Academy in Bethel who was also teaching English there, she said.

In October 2023, the volunteer teachers invited their students to a potluck dinner at the church and between 15 and 20 came.

“When we realized we couldn’t communicate well over dinner, (the immigrants) realized how important it was for them to integrate into the community,” Lyon said.


The distance from Lewiston to Bethel also made them realize “that we cared so much,” she said. “‘The roads are so narrow, it is so far!'” Lyon said they told them.

Recently, on a frigid day in January with their arms full of donated winter clothing, the foursome is greeted with warm hugs and hearty handshakes from their students.

“Most of these people are educated in their own countries,” Lyon said. “That they can’t speak English makes them appear a way that you might make a big mistake and lose respect for them.”

When they arrive each week, there could be anywhere from six to 26 people waiting and eager to learn English.

Lyon said she has taught 11 Syrians at one visit, “four adults and a range of kids from five to 20.”

She said one group of Syrians who fled their county waited 11 years in Egypt to get to America.


On Jan. 17, the room in the MEIRS building at 250 Bartlett St. is packed with about two dozen people.

The four teachers split up. Remington, a former teacher, and Seabury Lyon has a group of eight at the end of one table. Their students are men from Afghanistan and Syria who are carefully cutting pictures from magazines, pasting them on cards and writing a description in English above each picture.

At the other end of the table, five women from Syria crowd around Sharon Lyon. Their native language is Arabic. A young woman named Jasmine translates. With perfect handwriting, Lyon’s students copy the alphabet, then repeat after Lyon to sound out each letter.

A 7-year-old Colombian boy is in the corner playing with Legos while his mother learns that English adjectives precede subjects – the opposite is true in her native Spanish.

At the same table, an 18-year-old boy and his father listen closely to LeConey who reads them a children’s story on her iPad. Her group of nine learners has three different native languages: Swahili, Rwandan and Spanish.

Sharon Lyon of Bethel teaches English on Jan. 17 to immigrants from Syria at Maine Immigration and Refugee Services in Lewiston. She said when she, her husband, Seabury Lyon, Mary LeConey and Melinda Remington arrive each Wednesday, there could be anywhere from six to 26 people waiting and eager to learn English. Rose Lincoln/The Bethel Citizen

Language skills are crucial for getting jobs, MEIRS Employment Case Manager Sid Degois said. If they have English they have a better chance of getting a job and they are not put in the position of being underemployed, he said.


The nonprofit organization unites immigrants and refugees with their new Maine communities by providing the skills, support, engagement, and opportunities they need to become self-sufficient while helping them maintain their cultural identities, according to its website

“They are working so hard,” Lyon said. “Many of these people have three or four dialects and languages that they already know and now English is their newest challenge.”

They come from all different backgrounds with varying educations. Some of their former careers were in television, electronics, engineering and nursing. Mostly it is difficult for them to grasp English, she said.

The best student Lyon met was Tolnan, who was trying to get into an accounting school. She brought him a grammar book to help him. “He wrote the most beautiful letter about himself,” Lyon said.

She said she retired from her career as a massage therapist because of arthritis.

“When you were in a service business and you can’t do it, you feel a hole in your life … teaching English builds you up … you’re helping these people fit into a society and a culture that is so strange to them, it’s just amazing.

“Suddenly they get that perspective and their eyes light up … It’s little, but it feels bigger,” she said.

Four residents of Bethel prepare to leave their hometown Jan. 17 to travel to Maine Immigrant and Refugee Services in Lewiston to teach English to immigrants. From left are Sharon Lyon, Mary LeConey, Melinda Remington and Seabury Lyon. When the foursome arrives each Wednesday, there could be anywhere from six to 26 people waiting and eager to learn English, Sharon Lyon said. Rose Lincoln/The Bethel Citizen

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