NEW YORK - Although she could have retreated into a shell of shyness because she spoke no English, Jeannie Hyun Diefenderfer displayed grit and bravery when she emigrated from Korea to America in 1974.
Her lack of English caused teachers at her new school in mid-town Manhattan to put her back in the third grade with eight- and nine-year-olds, even though she was 13 and had completed the sixth grade in her native country. "It was certainly a strange feeling being among students who were that much younger," she recalls. "However, I was more than eager to learn the language and willing to go to any lengths to do so."
And indeed she did -- with utmost determination. By the time she was 18, Diefenderfer had mastered English and in 1980, she graduated fourth in her high school class of 900. Four years later, she earned her bachelor's degree from Tufts University in Boston.
Today, she is a vice president at Verizon Communications - and a volunteer who helps prepare other immigrants to achieve success in America.
"My success in the American school system and then getting a job with the phone company seemed to happen overnight; but I was really determined to succeed," she said. "Even as a 13-year-old, when I first came to this country, I knew I had to master English to achieve success. What country can you go to and achieve success if you can't communicate well?"
The obvious answer to this question has led Diefenderfer to volunteer 10 to 15 hours a month at The International Center, a New York City nonprofit organization that helps immigrants make a smooth transition to America, and where she serves as president of the board of directors.
"If you visit the center on a typical day you will see volunteers working with a melting pot of immigrants - helping them to adjust to America by understanding and mastering the English language within the context of American culture," Diefenderfer said.
Diefenderfer's story of volunteerism is just one of thousands of such stories among the employees at Verizon. The company encourages its employees to volunteer for something they love and provides a Web address and bulletin boards to find volunteer opportunities in their community. Known as Verizon Volunteers, the program was launched in 2001 and continues to grow steadily. Employees who volunteer 50 hours or more at a nonprofit agency each year can receive a $500 grant for up to two separate agencies. The grants are given on behalf of the employee's volunteer service. In addition, teams of 10 or more employees who participate in a fundraising pledge-a-thon for a qualified nonprofit can get matches from the foundation for funds they raise up to $25,000 per team. Last year, Verizon employees nationwide volunteered in 18,300 different ways through this program.
According to Susan Sullivan, director of employee volunteerism at Verizon Foundation, the telecommunications industry has a long history of caring for the communities in which it operates. "We cultivate that heritage with our foundation programs that encourage employees to become involved with charitable agencies in their communities," she said.
Altogether, through the volunteer program and in other contributions, Verizon Foundation last year awarded 22,000 grants totaling more than $70 million to nonprofit agencies working to improve basic and computer literacy, enriching communities through technology and creating a skilled workforce. For more information on the foundation, visit http://www.verizon.com/foundation.
Diefenderfer and other Verizon volunteers are featured in a series of ads labeled "Volunteer for Something You Love." She is in two of the ads, which have been translated into multiple languages and placed in ethnic newspapers. More information on the program can be found at http://www.verizon.com/foundation.
Diefenderfer explained that when the center succeeds in helping an immigrant become autonomous in American society, everybody wins - the individual, the center and our communities. She gives back to the center because she is helping her Korean and American heritage simultaneously.
"I cannot forget where I came from, and I must appreciate where I am," Diefenderfer said. "And this is why I see myself as two things - Korean and American - because I can be either of these at anytime. I am very proud of this."
Jeannie Hyun Diefenderfer, who immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 13,
A Fortune 10 company, Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) is one of the world's leading providers of communications services, with approximately $67 billion in revenues and 224,000 employees. Verizon companies are the largest providers of wireline and wireless communications in the United States, with 137.6 million access line equivalents and 34.6 million Verizon Wireless customers. Verizon is the third largest long-distance carrier for U.S. consumers, with 14.6 million long-distance lines. The company is also the largest directory publisher in the world, as measured by directory titles and circulation. Verizon's international presence includes wireline and wireless communications operations and investments, primarily in the Americas and Europe. For more information, visit www.verizon.com.