I started volunteering at IRIS (IRIS is the Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services headquartered on Nicoll St.) 7 years ago. I’ve worked in different capacities. I helped out with the CT Foodbank pick-ups, stocking the food pantry at IRIS (which is where I met the wonderful Betty Whitney). I have helped prepare apartments for new arrivals and transported volunteers. But My Latest, and perhaps favorite so far is what I am specifically talking about today and that is the IRIS Afterschool Program that is held at the Fair Haven Middle school.
Many school-aged refugee children have never entered a classroom before coming to the US. As a result, these newcomers encounter a host of obstacles to achieving academic success. IRIS works to remove barriers by providing children with intensive in-school and after-school tutoring assistance. Approximately 28 IRIS children participate in the afterschool program. They meet from 3-5 pm, Monday through Friday when school is in session.
The IRIS Afterschool program is run by Sarah LaChance, the daughter of our own Jane Hindenlang and Joel LaChance. Many of you are perhaps familiar with her as she grew up in this congregation. Sarah is assisted by two associates who speak Arabic, Pashtu and other languages and can translate for children who are new to speaking English. The program format is that the children meet after school, have snack, and go to the library where they are broken down into smaller groups that are assigned to volunteers who help with homework. Then the students are also encouraged to practice reading out loud, and can play games before they go to the gym – soccer and basketball seem to be favorites.
I started in the beginning of November of 2016, Mondays and Tuesdays and was captivated by the children’s enthusiasm. Some of the kids I worked with didn’t speak English very well, but I found that they were eager learners and so happy to have me there. Sometimes we drew pictures together and that is how I found out what they liked (helicopters, boats, flowers etc). We always start with homework and reading time, but being children, they also like to play. Doing puzzles is another favorite. Imagine me with 5 boys putting together a puzzle of a rocket ship taking off at Cape Canaveral. They also have access to flash cards, books and games and all they need is someone to share that with them. Connecting goes a long way in enhancing learning. Every week I see progress.
One breakthrough moment for me was with a boy named Maen. He didn’t speak English (I got help from his Arabic speaking classmates when I needed it). He is very smart – especially in math. I asked him to teach me to count in Arabic from 0 – 10, and he was delighted. I wrote down the phonetic equivalent and later looked them up on Youtube so I could pronounce them properly. The next time I saw him I started by reciting the numbers: sefer, whahed, ethnaan, thaaltha, arbaa, khamsa, sitta, sabaa, thamaniya, tisaa, aashara. That was all it took. Maen was so proud and impressed. He gathered his friends and had me recite. From that day forward, we had the key to math and more importantly, he and the other children understood that I was interested in them and was willing to meet them half way. Fast forward, it was so much easier when we had a common starting point. I have always loved math, so this was easy and fun to share. By the way, many weeks later, Maen‘s English is improving rapidly.
Perhaps you have something you’d like to share: an interest in art, photography, some craft…you are not limited: there are so many ways to share and the children appreciate the time and attention. Even one afternoon a week (1.5 to 2 hours) makes a difference. The blessing goes both ways – we enrich each other.
This is just one of the IRIS programs that can help refugees. In light of the current administration’s goal of cutting funding to sanctuary cities, IRIS needs support – both service wise and/or financially. You can visit irisct.org on the web and click on “get involved” to see opportunities.