Over lunch each week, just down the block from each other’s organization, RISE AmeriCorps Member David Clower and First Lutheran Church Food Services Coordinator Ruth Ehrhardt bonded over their shared passion of community service. Together, they strategized Clower’s plans for the future and ways to connect resources for the Afghan refugees Clower primarily serves.
“I got super lucky because Ruth has an incredible wealth of experience that she has been able to share with me,” Clower said.
Through the unique opportunity of the RISE AmeriCorps mentorship program, members are gaining professional and personal connections to lead them successfully into their next season of life. RISE AmeriCorps members are carefully matched with mentors according to their ambitions. The pairs then meet for one hour per week for at least six months, talking through steps to meet their goals.
When Clower entered the mentorship program at the beginning of his service term with the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC), he was in the early stages of applying to graduate school. Each week, Ehrhardt sat down with him to touch base on his progress and talk through decisions. Clower has since been accepted into the Humphrey College of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and will start classes toward a masters in human rights in the fall.
However, Clower said one of his mentor’s largest impacts was supporting his RISE AmeriCorps service with CMC. Through Ehrhardt’s widespread network of connections in the community, she provided logistical support as Clower set up housing and resources for newly arriving refugees from Afghanistan. The pair collaborated to recruit teams of volunteers and source furniture for refugees’ new homes.
“We had resettled Afghan arrivals over the last six months and could not have done it without community support,” Clower said. “But I in particular could not have done my role without Ruth’s support.”
As the food services coordinator at First Lutheran Church, Ehrhardt fills an essential role coordinating resources for the local homeless population. Previously, she spent decades working in social services and as a registered nurse. Five years spent in West Africa also strengthened her interest in refugee resettlement, which is a field Clower is interested in entering.
“I kind of have the heart for and the understanding of being a stranger in another place, because I’ve been there [in West Africa] and people were good to me,” Ehrhardt said.
Ehrhardt’s commitment to guiding youth also runs deep as a former foster mother to several hundred children and teenagers over the years. Now mentoring her second RISE AmeriCorps member, she said connecting with youth helps keep her young and in touch with the world.
“We can all do small things in the places where we are. That’s what keeps me going everyday,” Ehrhardt said. “Giving encouragement to each other regardless of generation or what area they’re working in is always a positive thing.”
In turn, Clower said his mentor relationship with Ehrhardt inspires him to emulate her lifelong dedication to helping others. From Ehrhardt, he learned it is possible to make huge impacts in the community. He hopes following in her footsteps in this way can always be a part of his life.
To others considering the mentorship program, Clower and Ehrhardt urge them to take a chance and apply. RISE AmeriCorps members can sign up for a mentor within the first few weeks of their service terms. Prospective mentors can join the program by applying here: https://www.refugeeriseiowa.org/mentors.html. After being matched with a member based on their goals, mentors are required to meet one hour per week for six months.
“If you're considering the mentorship program, do it,” Clower said. “There’s just so many different things that you can learn from people. It can really only enhance your time as an AmeriCorps member.”
In this video series, RISE AmeriCorps Members are taking us along to their host sites across Iowa. Mariely Perales is key in supporting the Spanish-speaking community in small-town, Hampton Iowa. Watch to learn more about Mariely, La Luz Centro Cultural and their service to empower Latino communities.
From serving the Sudanese immigrant community to receiving resources to excel in the medical career, Fatima is is sharing her life-changing journey as RISE AmeriCorps Member at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Sayri Reyna gives us a look into her service at the City of Columbus Junction and how she's adapting to meet immigrant and refugees' needs everyday.
RISE AmeriCorps Members at Kirkwood Community College are bridging the divide between immigrants and refugees and programs to help them fill quality, in-demand jobs. Since summer 2021, a partnership between Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) and Kirkwood’s TRIO Student Support Services program has forged the way for more immigrants and refugees to enter the workforce.
“At Kirkwood, the benefit of our program is that we’re really connected to the students and the community here,” TRIO ESL Director Mallory Petsche said. “We started this partnership because there was a gap between the community accessing and knowing these programs IowaWORKS has.”
RISE AmeriCorps Members and Kirkwood’s TRIO program collaborate regularly with IWD Workforce Consultant Shane Greve. Greve meets one-on-one with Kirkwood students and discusses IWD’s wide array of services that assist with tuition, childcare, transportation, job searches, career planning and more. IWD programs such as GAP grant Iowans the funds to train and enter in-demand jobs. Certified nursing assistant (CNA) training is a particularly popular pathway among the Kirkwood community, which is helping to fill a shortage of care workers in Iowa.
Immigrants and refugees often struggle to overcome language and technology barriers on their own, which limits their ability to receive support from IWD. RISE AmeriCorps Members boost accessibility of IWD programs by acting as a cultural guide, interpreter and advocate.
“For students who were at the point where they didn’t think they would be able to continue with their education, they’re now getting support to be able to pay for school,” Petsche said. “Now they’re getting into these programs and getting the education they need to get a higher paying job, while also filling these huge workforce needs.”
Before Aamira* contacted TRIO, the single parent and immigrant was preparing to drop out of school earlier this year. Struggling to pay bills, find childcare and pinpoint exactly what she wanted to do was causing a crisis in Aamira’s life.
The team stepped in. Working with RISE AmeriCorps members, Aamira defined goals for herself and her family, and found resources to help financially. Months later, Aamira is now successfully completing business classes and is on her way to achieving her dreams.
Greve said he witnessed similar successes, where clients' livelihoods were transformed. Many clients he works with are working to earn their commercial driving licenses and receive higher-paying jobs with better benefits in industries such as trucking.
RISE AmeriCorps Members, who often come from the immigrant and refugee communities they serve, act as the messenger to inform about the many resources available at IWD. Members refer and schedule meetings to kick off the process with IWD.
Both at Kirkwood and upon requests from the IowaWORKS Center in Iowa City, RISE AmeriCorps Member Farhain Mohamed interprets for Greve with fluent Arabic and English skills. Mohamed and fellow RISE AmeriCorps Member Fatima Abdelhaleem’s language skills have been vital for supporting Iowa City’s large Sudanese population.
“These individual meetings are really helpful because the students get a lot of help from these meetings and after the meetings I follow-up, like did you get in all of your paperwork? How is the process going? And they send out if they need more help,” Mohamed said.
RISE AmeriCorps members like Mohamed continue discussions beyond Greve’s capacity in appointments. They coach students and community members along the difficult process of choosing career options and selecting the right classes to fulfill their ambitions.
This year, Kirkwood, RISE AmeriCorps Members and IWD will be sharing information with even larger audiences. Similarly to last summer, they plan to continue hosting information sessions and registration assistance so groups of community members can learn to access helpful resources.
“I just think having these types of services and these connections really benefit people in our community,” Greve said. “There’s a lot of students at Kirkwood who aren't aware of these [IWD] services, and I think the RISE AmeriCorps Program has helped bridge that gap.”
*Name changed for privacy
(From left to right) RISE Program Coordinator Livvy Su, TRIO ESL Director Mallory Petsche, Member Support Coordinator Donna Jiruska, RISE AmeriCorps Member Fatima Abdelhaleem and RISE Program Manager Clare Angeroth Franks pose for a photo at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City. Photo taken by Julia DiGiacomo.
After the Taliban-takeover in Afghanistan forced thousands of families to flee from their homes and seek resettlement, RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff at Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) are helping Afghan refugees adjust to their new lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In affiliation with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), CMC is responsible for resettlement services to support refugees during their first months in the country. From coordinating housing to medical assistance to cultural orientation, CMC is the official guide in Cedar Rapids for refugees abruptly dropped into a foreign land and culture.
RISE AmeriCorps Member David Clower said the number of Afghan refugees arriving in Cedar Rapids has poured in like a tidal wave, in comparison to the usual trickle of refugees resettled from mostly Central Africa. During just a two week period in November 2021, over 80 Afghan refugees arrived in Cedar Rapids. In all, Clower said 250 Afghan refugees have been welcomed by CMC from mid-November to mid-February. In contrast, CMC often resettles only about 150 clients over a year.
CMC immediately stepped up with the most urgent needs, like short-term housing. Clower said they usually try to set up refugees in apartments, but due to the large number of people, they are staying in hotels for now. CMC also set the refugees up for success by helping them enroll in public benefits like electronic benefit transfer (EBT) or Medicaid and receive medical screenings.
“Now, we’re trying to get people into long-term housing, get kids enrolled in school, work with people to get them into English classes and help them figure out employment options,” Clower said.
RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff also initially welcomed the rush of arrivals with a cultural orientation about life in the U.S. RISE AmeriCorps Member Laurent Ramazani has been especially helpful in guiding students through four classes, covering topics such as American culture, how to navigate the bus system, how to receive medical help and much more.
“If you think of it from the perspective of an Afghan evacuee who has been pulled in a lot of different directions and now planted in a new community, providing something like bus orientation is so important,” RISE AmeriCorps Member Victoria Conoan said.
With the help of donations, CMC also arranged outings to raise spirits and introduce Afghans to Cedar Rapids. RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff provided transportation and coordinated trips to see the Nutcracker ballet and spend a day at the Play Station, a three-story indoor playground.
“This is a way to get people out of the hotel in the middle of the coldest months of the year when they’re cut off from the community and everything’s new and strange,” Conoan said. “It was really neat to see because the kids had been cooped up in the hotel. They were just so excited to burn off energy at Play Station.”
Going forward, CMC is dedicated to following up with educational services like English classes and job readiness training. Conoan and Clower said many of the refugees previously worked for the U.S. military bases and have ample skills. With resources and education from CMC, they have the chance to gain quality jobs again.
“I want to see people stay in Iowa,” Clower said. “I would like to see Cedar Rapids be a place that really welcomes refugees from all over the world.”
Since January, two RISE AmeriCorps Members have been essential in helping a group of refugees from Burma on their way to U.S. citizenship. Thu Meh and Pray Meh, who serve with EMBARC, host a weekly class to help fellow members of the Karenni community excel on their interviews and tests.
Thu Meh said the citizenship class is extremely important for her community, because passing the interview and civics test are required in order to be awarded citizenship. Citizenship has many advantages for immigrants and refugees living in the U.S., including easier access to public benefits, the freedom to travel abroad, the ability to vote, family reunification for their loved ones in other countries, and more.
Thu Meh takes advantage of her multilingual skills to create and print out materials for the class to study each week. She and Pray Meh are currently helping the students move through the 100 questions of the civics citizenship test, reviewing up to 10 questions on American history and government per week. The students are gaining progress through tests on the previous week’s content.
“The classes will help people prepare and be helpful for people who need basic English help, and who cannot practice by themselves,” Thu Meh said. “They need someone’s help to study for the test.”
During the actual citizenship test, 10 questions are randomly chosen from the 100 potential ones and six correct answers needed to pass. The pass rate as of June 2021 is 91 percent.
The Karenni citizenship class will also help the refugees from Burma feel more comfortable and prepared during their citizenship interview. Immigrants and refugees must answer a series of questions about their personal background to pass the process.
Pray Meh was inspired to help with the class after her mother, who does not speak much English, paid for assistance from a lawyer and interpreter during the citizenship process, but was ultimately scammed out of a large sum of money. Now, Pray Meh is empowering community members who want to prepare on their own through the free class from EMBARC.
“I’m so excited about my community having a class,” Pray Meh said. “My goal is to help my community and push them to become citizens and pass the test.”
The Day at the Capitol on February 2nd was many RISE AmeriCorps Members’ first experience speaking with legislators. Yet they were welcomed with introductions, rounds of applause and rich conversations in both chambers of the capitol. The event hosted by Volunteer Iowa helped RISE AmeriCorps Members share their stories and gain skills to continue educating Iowa about immigrants and refugees.
When RISE AmeriCorps Member Jonatan Artola informed about his service with immigrants and refugees at IC Compassion, he found that the legislators from his district were extremely receptive and interested. The experience felt especially striking to Artola, since he said it is almost impossible to talk with representatives in his home country of Guatemala. In some cases, Artola said speaking up on a politically-sensitive issue can lead to Guatemalans getting their families into trouble or even being killed.
“So this experience made me feel powerful as just a normal, common person here in Iowa,” Artola said. “I really do appreciate the opportunity.”
RISE AmeriCorps Member Fatima Abdelhaleem also took advantage of the opportunity to share about her service improving immigrant and refugees' job prospects at Kirkwood Community College. The site partners with Iowa Workforce to connect clients with resources and boost their job readiness skills. The Day at the Capitol was Abdelhaleem's first experience at the statehouse and she said it helped to build her confidence.
"When you feel like the people who make laws for you are happy to talk to you and hear what you think, it is great,” Abdelhaleem said. “I think I can help people more now. If someone from the community comes to me and it is out of my scope, I now know I can reach out to legislators.”
RISE AmeriCorps Member David Clower commuted across the state from Cedar Rapids to represent his host site, Catherine McAuley Center (CMC). As a resettlement coordinator, Clower explained how CMC helps newcomer refugees find long-term housing and other important resources. He said that hearing all the stories from members at the Day at the Capitol helped him to get a better sense of the big-picture challenges facing immigrants and refugees and reflect on the shared obstacles they encounter.
“I definitely feel we helped to increase the visibility of some of the issues we raised and hopefully it will stick with some of [the legislators],” Clower said. “I also think that being able to share personal and firsthand experiences is especially powerful.”
RISE AmeriCorps Alum Mu Paw, who finished a service term with EMBARC in 2021 before joining as staff, represented refugees from Burma at the capitol. Mu Paw told legislators about her life experiences as a refugee in Iowa and her service helping other refugees adjust to their new life in Des Moines. She said she has visited the capitol in the past to advocate, but she felt she was able to make bigger impacts than ever before through the Day at the Capitol with RISE AmeriCorps.
“[Legislators] were willing to talk to us and listen to our stories while we are working with the immigrant and refugee communities,” Paw said. “It’s not only a benefit for myself, but also for our community that we are advocating for.”
Community Coordinator Gabriela Pedroza and RISE AmeriCorps Member Nancy Alers drove hours from their organization, Centro Latino of Iowa, in Council Bluffs to Des Moines. They met with representatives in their district to share how they help Latinos and underrepresented communities channel their voices and improve their life prospects. The meetings ended in lasting connections and plans for Rep. Brent Siegrist to visit Centro Latino to get to know the community.
Pedroza was also inspired by legislators’ willingness to learn about the RISE AmeriCorps team. After recounting the exciting trip to a group of Latino high school leaders, she’s now hoping to plan a trip for the students to experience educating legislators for themselves.
“Being an immigrant myself and working in a meatpacking plant for over eight years, I never thought that the doors were always open to talk with representatives like that,” Pedroza said. “And that they are eager to talk with us and hear what we’re thinking and how we can collaborate with them and support what they’re doing so they can support us.”
For the first time in two years, RISE AmeriCorps gathered at the Iowa Capitol in-person to make strides in educating state legislators. 21 RISE AmeriCorps Members, representing eight host sites in five counties across Iowa, shared stories of needs in the immigrant and refugee communities and the differences they’ve created through RISE. Others will echo virtually to create connections with legislators.
The Feb. 2 “Day at the Capitol” was organized by Volunteer Iowa to inform Iowa's lawmakers about the impacts of AmeriCorps service.
The RISE AmeriCorps team started off the day-long event with an invitation to the floors of both the House and Senate. RISE AmeriCorps Members were invited by Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott and Rep. Timi Brown-Powers to mingle with legislators and share their experiences serving immigrants and refugees. During the announcements in both chambers, the members were introduced to everyone and welcomed with a round of applause.
“RISE AmeriCorps Members connect and support fellow immigrants and refugees with education, jobs and essential services to increase economic opportunities for the communities and economic growth to Iowa,” Brown-Powers announced to the Iowa House. “Last year, the RISE Program enrolled 99 members: 90 percent recruited from Iowa, 68 percent from refugee and immigrant communities and 80 percent bilingual.”
Legislators such as Rep. Art Staed, Rep. Bob Kressig, Sen. Joe Bolkcom and many more stopped by to inquire about RISE AmeriCorps Members’ experiences serving. Members conversed about their unique experiences as immigrants and refugees in Iowa, why they joined RISE and the biggest changes they’re making in communities across the state.
Later in the event, the RISE AmeriCorps team met in Sen. Zach Wahls’ office to answer questions and explain the purposes of RISE AmeriCorps, such as improving immigrant and refugee self-sufficiency through job readiness training. Many RISE AmeriCorps Members, such as David Clower, and RISE AmeriCorps alumni Mu Paw and Lal Muani gave their perspectives on immigrant and refugee issues as well as the importance of their projects.
“We shared that we have a partnership with Iowa Workforce and we help the students with job readiness, such as getting ready to have a job, find education, and the interview process,” RISE AmeriCorps Member Farhain Mohamed said about her host site, Kirkwood Community College.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Fatima Tahir said she also shared some benefits of the program for members, such as how the mentoring program connected her with a tutor so she can study and rejoin the medical field. Fatima previously worked as a doctor in her home country and is looking to gain certifications in the U.S.
Next, RISE AmeriCorps Members and their supporters set off to request individual meetings with legislators who represent the districts of their host sites. The RISE team conversed with legislators from all political backgrounds, bringing to their attention the barriers immigrants and refugees face in Iowa without services from programs like RISE.
Centro Latino’s Community Engagement Coordinator Gabriela Pedroza shared on behalf of her and RISE AmeriCorps Member Nancy Alers, how Centro Latino is assisting the Latino community with the help of RISE.
“We work with the Latino community and underrepresented communities to create a better quality of life with resources such as GED classes, civic engagement, citizenship classes, and English classes as well." Pedroza said.
Overall, the event was not only many RISE AmeriCorps Members’ first visit to the statehouse, but an in-person look into how the government operates and a chance to make change by educating the state’s decision makers.
“Everyone has a different story for how and why we came to RISE,” RISE AmeriCorps Member Autumn Diesburg said. “Now we get to share our stories and make connections.”
MLK Day of Service represents much of what RISE AmeriCorps Members stand for as they serve diverse, underrepresented communities across Iowa.
To celebrate the holiday, four RISE AmeriCorps Members shared their thoughts on the meaning of service and their experiences with RISE through written and video reflections.
RISE AmeriCorps Members Kamaura Kim with ArtForce Iowa and Fatima Tahir with Kirkwood Community College:
RISE AmeriCorps Member Amanda McVann with EMBARC Des Moines:
Looking back, I think my whole life has been dedicated to the service of others. Helping other people when they need it most is almost an autonomic response for me - it’s like breathing. I can’t function in a world that allows injustice and oppression to continue on without resistance, so I’ve made it my mission to help uplift voices and experiences from those on the margins.
By serving with RISE AmeriCorps, I’m able to engage with members and leaders from diverse, creative, thriving, and inspiring refugee communities throughout the Des Moines area. As a newcomer to Iowa, I’ve felt warmly welcomed to the EMBARC team and feel valued for not only my previous community leadership experience but also my passion for social justice and creative writing skills. Overall, I hope that through my time with RISE AmeriCorps that I am able to continue uplifting other people’s stories and experiences that further empower and develop their voice as well as their communities.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Nafissatou Lamidi with Hoover Community School:
For me, serving is leading an impactful life. It’s a life dedicated to helping, enriching, and improving disadvantaged people’s lives. It adds value to others.
Serving with RISE has impacted me in many ways, but the most important is my personal growth. I am part of the community I am serving, so I also face some of the barriers at points in my life. By working daily to help remove those barriers for others, I’ve learned a lot. I get to improve my problem-solving skill set and I feel empowered and more integrated now.
One of my first cases was to help a kid and his mom set up a doctor appointment for his eyes after his teacher noticed that he had difficulties following along in class. But the mom didn’t have insurance and can’t speak English. Therefore, I helped her apply for insurance, called hospitals to set up an appointment and went in with them as an interpreter. Now the kid is the best student in his classroom. It was an enlightening experience to me, because I couldn’t stop wondering what they would have done without me. That’s when I told myself, “I want to keep doing this. I am sure there are many more family like this one who
needs assistance and I want to help.”
For me, service is very important because I want to live a meaningful and fulfilling life by adding value to other’s lives around me as much as I can, whether it is through service, policies, or entrepreneurship.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Julia DiGiacomo with EMBARC Des Moines:
For me, MLK Day of Service is an annual reminder to reflect on the civil rights movement and the importance of always striving for social justice and community service. Activists like Martin Luther King Jr. paved the way for underrepresented communities in the United States to gain rights and a better future. Since RISE AmeriCorps serves immigrants and refugees who still experience huge barriers in the United States, I think that recognizing and learning from past movements for social justice is essential.
The popular saying, “It takes a village,” truly exemplifies the meaning of service to me. As humans, we rely on one other to lend a helping hand in times of need. Therefore, I believe service is the lifeblood of a healthy, thriving community. All of my service experiences over the last decade have been extremely formative for me and I feel fortunate to be able to continue contributing through RISE AmeriCorps’s mission of reaching immigrants and refugees in need.