In 2016, a Eureka English teacher named Mary Ann Hytken dreamed about being able to offer a new model of adult English language program free of charge to everyone in the community. Hytken founded English Express as a DreamMaker Project of the Ink People that same year, and proceeded to make it happen.

As a dedicated English teacher with years of experience in public school systems, Hytken knew that language learning classes for immigrants were in demand. She also saw a need for citizenship support and connections to places of interest, events and resources in Humboldt County. At the time, there was a decline in local adult English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. Hytken started English Express to answer this need. It was a calculated risk, but the organization’s growth over the past six years has validated her vision.

“We got started in summer of 2016,” Hytken said. “At that time, I was an ESL professor at College of the Redwoods. That summer, the English language program at HSU had folded, and College of the Redwoods had canceled their summer semester ESL classes. My students asked if we could keep scheduling classes through the summer. They said, ‘Please don’t stop. We want to keep learning.’ That was when English Express launched. I had wanted to offer more than what I was able to offer within an academic setting, and it gave me the freedom to do that.

“We started with one English language class in Eureka; we met in the Jefferson Community Center,” Hytken recalled. “There were about a dozen students representing three countries. Since that time, we have served over 500 students, all Humboldt residents, representing 35 countries of origin.”

English Express currently offers free English language classes in Eureka, Rio Dell, at Sun Valley Floral Farms, and online. The program’s free citizenship class, taught by educator Elizabeth Niemeyer, has helped 43 students become new United States citizens to date. All classes offer students a suite of wraparound services and emphasize access to resources. “English Express is more than an English language class, Hytken explained. “It’s a bridge to Humboldt County resources. In some cases, it can be a lifeline. When people move here from other countries, they have to recreate their lives. English Express helps them access resources to do that.”

It can be difficult for educators to optimize resource access for populations in which language barriers are an issue. One challenge, Hytken believes, has to do with many immigrants’ precarious status, their consciousness of vulnerability, and their need to feel safe. She designed English Express with an emphasis on wraparound services “in hopes that students can feel safe reaching out. Not only do we share information and resources on our social media channels and in our classes, but we also have guest speakers come into our program on a regular basis to support our students directly. Students can meet resource providers face-to- face, which generates trust.”

Donations have made it possible for Hytken’s programs to grow. “We received free Chromebooks from the Humboldt Area Foundation when COVID-19 hit. Last month the Robert M. Lochtie Memorial Fund donated another set of Chromebooks so that we can continue to help people access online classes.” Online teaching, which English Express began out of necessity during the pandemic, has helped the program reach many new students since. “We have tripled in size since COVID. Our online classes continue to grow, because many of our students are working full time. They have children in our public schools. And they’re working weekends. So for them, online classes are ideal.”

What makes it all worthwhile for Hytken are moments like one she experienced recently while delivering course materials to a Eureka student who recently immigrated from Afghanistan. “When I delivered the computer to her house, she was literally jumping up and down, smiling with tears in her eyes, the minute I walked in the door with that new computer. She was so deeply appreciative, and wanting so much to learn.”

Hytken believes that her model has been successful because it is student-centered. “I go where the need is, and that’s how English Express got started. It was not a program created in someone’s mind, and then applied to the English language learner community. It was a program that came into being through listening to students, asking what their needs were.” Hytken also credits the relationships she has fostered in the community. “Those who are serving the same population in different ways are verbalizing their appreciation and recognition of what we do. In November 2022, we received a letter of recognition from Senator Mike McGuire. Dr. Jorge Matias, with Providence’s Paso a Paso, recently wrote a testimonial on our behalf. In 2023 I created a collaboration between Humboldt County adult ESL teachers called Teachers Together. College of the Redwoods professors and educators from Eureka Adult School and the Humboldt Literacy project have joined.

We all support each other, and we’re working together to create the most optimal experience for our English language learners. Hopefully, we’ll be able to provide a pipeline for those who have the means and desire to go on to higher education.”

As an advocate for immigrants, Hytken seeks to make others aware of the challenges they face. “People will sometimes say, ‘Gosh, Mary Ann! You’ve served people from 35 countries over the last eight years, but I don’t ever see them out there in the community.’ I try to make people aware of the fact that even if we might not know immigrants personally, our lives and theirs intersect. They’re working long hours in our hospitals, our long term care facilities, our dairies, our fish and oyster factories, flower farms, hotels, the food industry, our schools, our stores. They’re taking care of our landscaping and house cleaning needs. These are our neighbors, and they contribute so much to the well-being of our community and our economy here in Humboldt. I’m just honored to serve them.”

A positive childhood experience with peers from another culture put Hytken on the path to do the work she does today. “I grew up here in Eureka; my children are fifth generation Eurekans. But when I was in fifth grade, one of our next door neighbors sponsored two exchange students from Japan. At first they spoke no English, but that summer, every morning we would play ping-pong on my family’s ping-pong table. And that was really the beginning. It helped me realize that I love building friendships with people from other countries and learning about their cultures. Thirty-five years of teaching later, having taught English as a second language in the United States and overseas, I feel like right now I’m at the top of my game. As life brings new experiences, I see the amazing results of keeping an open mind and seeing how doors open.”

Even though English Express has grown steadily since its inception, funding continues to be a challenge. Following a 2023 change in the program’s funding, Hytken is looking at having to reduce program offerings for the first time. “Of course, we do not want to do this, because the numbers of those we serve continue to increase. So we’re really focused on raising money right now. I’m asking the community to help us continue to be a lifeline and a bridge for our students and their families. If they ever wanted to give a dollar or assist in some other fashion, this is a good time.”

“Our work directly impacts our students’ lives, but it’s only doable with the community’s help. I’m one person of many who are helping to make Humboldt a community for all; that’s what lights me up. This is my little spot on the community stage.”


To get involved with English Express and learn about current classes, or to help support Hytken’s mission, go to this link.

English Express will be participating in Change 4 Change at Eureka Natural Foods (both Eureka and McKinleyville locations) through March 9. You can support English Express by making purchases at Eureka Natural Foods during this period.