RISE & Shine Blog
Stories of change & hope from our members across the state
RISE & Shine Blog
In a year of unprecedented changes that touched nearly all aspects of daily life, RISE AmeriCorps members at ArtForce Iowa are sharing their unique experiences and deeply personal stories about what change means to them. Their social justice art exhibit, #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change, officially launched on May 6 and features works of art from numerous youth artists.
The #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change project was inspired by the civil rights rallying cry “No Justice, No Peace”, which protests against and condemns police violence against Black community members. Since #KNOWJUSTICE is an educational exhibit, the “no” was changed to “know” signifying the aim to truly know what is needed for achieving justice in our society.
The exhibit creates a space for refugee and immigrant youth and the cultures and communities they represent. This year’s #KNOWJUSTICE exhibit took on special meaning for the RISE AmeriCorps members at ArtForce as they explored the dramatic changes that affect their lives. Unfinished and in process work is also included and can be seen throughout the exhibit, along with the theme of change.
For the first time in its six-year history, the event is taking place online due to the COVID-19 crisis, giving added significance to the subtitle “Know Change”. This new format increased attendance considerably, with nearly 3,000 people viewing the exhibit virtually compared to about 150 people in years past. The 2021 edition of #KNOWJUSTICE features the work of ArtForce Iowa’s four RISE AmeriCorps members: Kamaura Kim, Lana Baccam Paredes, Shel Paw, and Mar Blu Moo.
Kim, a first generation Hmong-American and member of the musical group First Gen, wrote and performed the song “Nco Txog Hmoob” about the challenges of leaving one’s homeland to come to the United States. She hopes it will raise awareness about the experience of living in Iowa as a young person from a different country and inspire others to learn about their own culture as she has.
Baccam Paredes emphasized the importance of the journey leading up to #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change, including reflections on past exhibits and group conversations about justice and change and what those ideas look like.
“It gives such a big platform for what seem to be little stories to share with the whole world. Our youth, we see them as little but they’re not. They are big and they are important,” Baccam Paredes said.
Mar Blu, or MB for short, is a photographer who designed his own short film, titled My Body is in Des Moines but My Heart is in My Home Country. Through his innovative artwork, MB is bringing attention to the atrocities committed against Karen people during the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021. The Karen are an ethnic group residing mainly in Burma, however they have faced injustice and oppression and many have had to flee state violence in their country.
“I want to preserve the Karen culture in my life and in my photography. I want new generations to know about my culture and my history,” MB said. “For now it’s difficult because I see my people dying and it seems like most people don’t care about it.”
RISE members made brave artistic choices in their work, and the diversity of the art created in #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change is sure to make a lasting impact on the community. Simultaneously a personal and collaborative effort, the exhibit demonstrates the powerful vision shared by this team of youth artists. The RISE team at ArtForce advocates for continued support of youth artists, their stories, their work, and their healing.
Shel Paw hopes that her painting, Karen, and message will shed more light on the plight of Karen people and the refugees seeking safety from war and persecution in Myanmar.
“I hope whenever someone reads my artist statement that it spreads awareness of what is happening to Karen people,” she said. Shel also hopes to inspire young people to see that they can create and share their own art as a way to give back to the community.
Kim agrees, saying she wants more youth to make art, especially musical performances. “I hope this inspires youth to make music and perform what they love to do.”
Baccam Paredes encourages other community-based organizations to support and foster programs that promote youth empowerment and healing through the arts. She hopes that other young artists who see the exhibit will be empowered to make art that is personal and authentic.
“I hope young artists will continue to tell stories in a way that is not expected by the world. The story is for them, if it’s for others it’s a gift.”
ArtForce Iowa is very intentional about centering the voices of youth who have been marginalized by systems of oppression, and #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change is no exception. By sharing their stories, these courageous young artists are embodying the mission of RISE AmeriCorps to empower refugees and immigrants. Their art inspires and informs, evoking a visceral response and allowing the audience to learn about ethnic groups and bring attention to what is happening in the world at this very moment. The ArtForce team exemplified the teamwork model that is crucial to the RISE program.
“I’ve never seen it take root in this way. These were truly labors of love, we were all helping each other,” said Yvette Zaród Hermann, Arts Outreach Educator at ArtForce Iowa.
Baccam Paredes seconded that sentiment, saying “It is such an achievement to make it happen, have an online event, and reach more people. That’s the bittersweetness of having the exhibit during a pandemic.”
Thanks to ArtForce and the RISE team, a new generation of artists has a space to share their stories, to support each other, to heal, and call for justice.
Shel Paw summed up the positive impact of the project’s journey and the final exhibit saying, “This was the perfect year to focus on change.”
New artwork has been added each week throughout the month of May, allowing guests to come back and experience the exhibit anew. It will remain open and free to view for the foreseeable future.
Visit #KNOWJUSTICE: Know Change online
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
RISE AmeriCorp’s new host site, Jewels Academy, is sparking interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for girls from underrepresented communities. Through math tutoring and 8–10 STEM workshops per year, girls are learning skills to help them succeed in high school, university, and future STEM careers.
Jewels Academy’s upcoming project is the “Young Emerging Scientist Virtual App Camp” for 4th through 9th grade girls. The week-long day camp will take place three times over June and July to reach a wide range of students in Des Moines. The main focus will be the design and creation of an app that students can access on their phones.
Jewels Academy’s new RISE AmeriCorps Member Elise Baty will help organize and facilitate the summer camp along with staff. She will help girls troubleshoot technological issues and help them develop business plans for their newfound apps.
“I'm most excited that our new RISE member is interested in becoming a teacher eventually,” Jewels Academy Program Director Joy Castro said. “So I'm just excited that she gets the opportunity to work with kids and learn the ropes of teaching with hands-on experience.”
Although the programs are open to all girls in 4th to 12th grades, Jewels Academy’s mission emphasizes the importance of bridging the gap in STEM training for girls from marginalized communities, such as low-income and racially diverse students. Jewels Academy’s programs are accessible to students from different socioeconomic backgrounds with the help of scholarship aid.
The week of science training can ignite new passions for girls and young women searching out their path in the world. Castro said her favorite part of the summer camps is watching the students become increasingly excited about science and math.
“When the students start the program, they might not be as into computers and science and STEM, but when they leave they say, ‘Oh I actually really like that. I think I want to pursue this in the future,’’' Castro said. “Just seeing their attitudes change about STEM is always one of the most exciting parts of the program.”
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
RISE AmeriCorps members at Oakridge Neighborhood in Des Moines have spent the first chunk of 2021 improving the lives of immigrants and refugees through ESL classes, a job readiness course, and education about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Oakridge Neighborhood in partnership with DMACC provides English class sessions to help immigrants and refugees better navigate daily life in Iowa. RISE AmeriCorps Member Halima Ali’s role is assisting with teaching and helping students who speak Arabic. She’s built off a year of previous experience assisting with the ESL classes as a Workstudy student at DMACC.
Halima’s brother and fellow RISE AmeriCorps Member Mo'ad Ali also joins to assist with class sessions when he has time away from Oakridge Neighborhood’s culturally diverse preschool, Oak Academy. Together with DMACC and Oakridge staff, they break up the class of about 15 into groups according to English level for more individualized assistance.
Halima says she’s enjoyed watching her students become increasingly confident in their English. She’s also received positive feedback from students at the end of class terms, with reports that they’re excited to be improving English.
“They say they are so happy and can see improvements in themselves,” Ali said. “We can see that too in them. It’s so great to see them be happy and see a difference from where they started and where they are now.”
Eight of the ESL students were recruited to join Oakridge Neighborhood’s first Workplace Skills 101 course in March. The eight hours of training were aimed at immigrants and refugees who are largely unfamiliar with the details of the American workplace. Topics included workplace safety, employee rights and responsibilities, workplace terminology, and other useful information like pay stubs.
RISE AmeriCorps members and staff helped interpret for students in four languages: Arabic, Swahili, Tigrinya, and Kunama. Halima helped the students who spoke Arabic follow along with content.
“The students all successfully completed the program and they were so excited to finish,” Halima said. “We also have plans to open another similar program in the future for the public, not just the Oakridge residents.”
RISE AmeriCorps members were also instrumental in translating and delivering vaccine facts to immigrants and refugees so they could make informed decisions. Oakridge Neighborhood’s outreach included calling clients and creating surveys to gauge thoughts on the vaccine. They then cleared up misconceptions and dispersed translated vaccine information from the CDC and local health departments.
Halima said that learning the facts in their language as well as hearing about others in their community getting vaccinated helped encourage many clients to seek out the vaccine at their clinic.
At least 240 people were vaccinated with Pfizer at Oakridge Neighborhood and UnityPoint’s vaccine clinic. They’re now nearly fully vaccinated and protected against COVID-19 after the two doses on April 10 and May 1.
“To be honest, at first [clients] were like ‘no no no’ to the vaccine,” Halima said. “But by the end of our efforts, we ended up having waitlists for the vaccine.
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
For former AmeriCorps RISE Member Kar Meh, empowering immigrants and refugees with EMBARC Waterloo has become a family endeavor. After successfully completing her AmeriCorps term in 2020, she encouraged her two younger siblings to join the IT Navigator Program as volunteers. Now the family works together to improve the prospects of refugees from Burma in Waterloo.
Kar inspired her 14-year-old brother Klaw Reh and 16-year-old sister Su Meh to follow in her footsteps after volunteering with EMBARC throughout high school as both a youth navigator and RISE member. Kar is also signed up to mentor volunteers for the IT Navigator Program.
“My sister definitely motivated me to join,” Klaw said. “She told me it was a great opportunity.”
Klaw and Su now assist refugees learning to use computers and the internet through the IT Navigator Program. As Youth Technology Navigators, they joined a secondary cohort of student volunteers. After extensive training sessions, they teach basic technology skills needed for modern life in the U.S. to peers and their community.
Su said she and her brother also are currently creating videos on topics such as the U.S. educational and grading systems so that refugee parents can stay involved in their children’s education. Klaw and Su’s bilingual English and Karenni skills have been critical for connecting with and educating clients.
“Most of the Burmese students’ parents have little to no knowledge on these things because of the language barrier,” Su said. “Our goal is to educate them on these topics.”
As just a middle schooler, Klaw is the youngest volunteer with the IT Navigator Program. He said working with his older sister Su has made the experience a lot easier, since she understands him and helps build off of his suggestions for projects.
Kar Meh made her own significant impact on clients at EMBARC Waterloo before her younger siblings’ joined the effort. During her AmeriCorps term as a senior in high school, she primarily worked with youth and interpreted for clients at Waterloo Community Schools before the pandemic hit. Afterwards, she refocused her energy on distributing food supplies for families in need. Kar helped order food, package supplies, reach out to partners, and connect with communities.
Kar’s exemplary work as well as Su’s own past experiences with EMBARC led West High School Student Su to get involved too.
“One of the reasons why I joined this program is because it gives me the opportunity to give back to the community, especially the Burmese community since I’m very interested in it,” Su said. “Knowing I’m helping out others from the same background as me empowers me a lot.”
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Over a decade after fleeing unrest in Burma for the United States, Aung* was struggling to keep his family afloat as the financial tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic grew heavier and heavier. To avoid drowning in bills, he connected with EMBARC for help.
Aung represents one of many refugees and immigrants across the U.S. burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic. While unemployment rates spiked in 2020, immigrants (especially those with less education) faced sharper job cuts than non-immigrants. Meatpacking plants, which heavily rely on immigrant workers, also became a hot spot for COVID-19 in spring 2020. Aung’s workplace wasn’t spared.
An outbreak at the JBS pork plant in Marshalltown caused Aung to stay home for his child’s safety. One of his young children developed pneumonia at the same time and was considered high risk. While the child recovered and the virus spread at his job, Aung received unemployment aid instead.
After returning to work at JBS, Aung was hit with devastating news. He was one of hundreds of Iowans who was mistakenly overpaid in unemployment assistance. He would have to pay back a large amount to the Iowa Workforce Development.
Aung’s wife, Lwe Lwe*, tested positive for coronavirus in October and he was forced to quarantine at home. Subsequently, Aung was laid off from his job for taking two breaks in one year. Since Lwe Lwe cared full-time for their two young children, aged four and six, the family was left with zero income.
Lal Muani, an EMBARC RISE AmeriCorps member, says Aung reached out to EMBARC while struggling to manage a mortgage and paying back unemployment benefits and a surgery bill from 2019. Aung and his wife, who speak Mizo Chin, had struggled to understand the extent of the dental surgery bill for their son due to the language barrier.
“I can’t imagine how frustrated and stressed they were,” Muani said. “They didn’t have food stamps or any social income at all. They’re going to think of losing the house. ”
Muani, who also speaks Mizo Chin, worked extensively with Aung to complete a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) application. She also helped him overcome English language and technology barriers while submitting job applications.
With Muani and EMBARC’s help, the odds finally began to turn in Aung’s favor. After about a month of waiting, Aung was approved for PUA. The funds allowed him to pay back all of the unemployment aid and take care of other bills, such as the dental payment. He was eventually hired at a well-paying company and returned to work to provide for his family.
“I am really proud of my team and I, that we could step in and help him figure out every situation,” Muani said. “Now he’s back to work and his payments have been settled. I think it’s really a win-win story.”
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
RISE AmeriCorps members at Mary Treglia Community House were instrumental in helping a COVID-19 vaccine clinic run smoothly. The Sioux City non-profit opened its doors to vaccinate 250 people within the span of several hours last Wednesday, March 17.
The goal of the event was to help immigrants and refugees overcome language and technology barriers to receive protection against the coronavirus.
“I think we’ve all heard how hard it is for anyone that isn’t technologically literate to sign up for a vaccine appointment,” Mary Treglia Community House Executive Director Becky Carlson said. “So we wanted to be able to provide another option.”
Most vaccine providers in Iowa, such as Hy-Vee, Walgreens, and CVS only offer appointments on their websites, which limits accessibility for immigrants and refugees without computer experience. Non-English speakers can also face obstacles navigating the blocks of English text on the applications.
Instead, Mary Treglia Community House only required a phone call to register for the clinic. They also reached out directly to immigrant and refugee staff and clients. Interpreters assisted patients with the registration and vaccination process.
Local news coverage and word of mouth spread information and helped increase registration beyond expectations. The clinic was also the first in the area to include people aged 16-64 with underlying health conditions, which drove up demand for the vaccine.
“We’re still getting calls,” Carlson said the day after the clinic.
As a result of the surge in registration, many people vaccinated were English speakers from the Sioux City surrounding areas. However, Mary Treglia Community House’s interpreters still kept busy helping non-English speakers. Food production workers, many of whom are immigrants and refugees, were one of the eligible groups vaccinated.
RISE AmeriCorps members Samson Weldu and Brianna Marroquin helped staff coordinate the rush of people. Weldu helped with check-ins and monitored the patients for 15 minutes after their shots in case of allergic reactions.
Weldu, who was born and raised in Eritrea, has also been an advocate for the safety and effectivity of COVID-19 vaccines. Carlson says he’s important for raising trust of the vaccine in African refugee communities.
Although the event was extremely busy, Weldu says the Mary Treglia Community House team made it work. The patients were happy for the chance to receive the Moderna doses.
“Everybody was really helpful,” Weldu said. “It was my first time working with so many people. But it was a good experience.”
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
The simple comfort of a quilt brightened winter days for immigrant and refugee children at Hoover Elementary School. RISE AmeriCorps members exchanged greetings with families in various languages while children excitedly selected their favorite quilts from an array of colors and patterns.
Through the generosity of the Des Moines Area Quilt Guild, RISE AmeriCorps members with Eastern Iowa African Diaspora hand-delivered dozens of homemade quilts to families on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Many refugee families at Hoover were forced to relocate after the hurricane-level derecho winds hit Cedar Rapids and devastated their apartment buildings in August. The quilts would help turn their new housing into homes.
“The families were so welcoming when we arrived at their homes,” RISE AmeriCorps member David Niyogushima said. “When we showed them the quilts, the kids’ reactions were priceless.”
RISE AmeriCorps member Kelli Klaus said the kids loved the quilts. The experience also offered a rare opportunity to meet the families of the children she works with. Since Klaus often works remotely, interactions with the community have become especially valuable. With interpretation from RISE member Angelique Nijimbere and a beginner knowledge of Swahili, Klaus was able to connect with families for the first time.
The quilts for Hoover Elementary School kids were among over 1,250 quilts sewn and donated by the Des Moines Area Quilt Guild in 2020. Guild members took advantage of time at home during the pandemic to sew more quilts than ever expected. Some quilters followed a strip pattern provided by the guild while others took off with their creativity.
Education and Community Giving Co-Chair Jill Reber said her organization is dedicated to meeting any need for quilts across Iowa. They have gifted quilts to cancer patients, newly adopted children, the Polk County Department of Human Services and others whose homes were destroyed in the derecho. Reber hopes that the quilts keep families warm during tough times.
“Quilts bring comfort to people in a really tangible way,” Reber said. “We know, just through the past year, that the quilts have made a difference in lives.”
Story by Juila DiGiacomo
Resources are not widely available in Columbus Junction, Iowa, a tiny town home to over 45 percent Hispanic residents and a Tyson meat packing plant. However, two RISE AmeriCorps members are set on guiding residents over obstacles and helping boost their self-sufficiency for a better future. Their work readiness, citizenship, and unemployment projects are impacting lives everyday.
When Mandy Grimm, Columbus Junction Public Library director and RISE supervisor, received unprofessional resume after resume from students, the idea for a work readiness high school program was sparked.
“As a community employer who hires for many positions, I was kind of appalled by the resumes I was getting from our school students,” Mandy says. “A work readiness class is one way we could address some of these needs without creating more work for our school staff.”
The project finally came to fruition in early 2021 when RISE AmeriCorps member Margaret Peterson took things into her own hands. Margaret is now finishing her second rotation of the class, which she developed to teach Columbus Community High School seniors the basics of applying and securing jobs successfully.
Using the RISE AmeriCorps program workforce readiness training modules as a reference, she prepared a series of presentations on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing for jobs.
Although Margaret is only able to spend about a half hour per day with students for eight days, she says she has seen the confidence levels in her students rise. They’ve developed a better grasp of the material and improved scores on a post-test vs a pre-test.
“I’ve learned, especially through the high school workforce readiness class, that none of us are really as prepared as we think we are when we go out into the workforce,” Margaret says. “I was grateful for the workforce readiness course from RISE and I’m grateful that I get to do this for other people as well.”
Outside of her time helping high schoolers, Margaret has been working to meet the need for citizenship test classes despite the COVID-19 pandemic. She adapted in-person class materials for a website and created new content after the citizenship questions changed in late 2020. Margaret is also currently helping a client prepare to retake the writing portion of his test.
“I’m really excited to keep working with my client so he can get his citizenship,” she says. “I’m excited to keep working with more people because they are just coming out of the woodworks, people who need help.”
Columbus Junction’s second RISE AmeriCorps member, Ana Vazquez, has been changing lives through unemployment casework, citizenship tutoring, and much more. On just her second day, she resolved a communication mishap which allowed an unemployment client to get his job back.
Ana says another big accomplishment has been helping a recently widowed woman back on her feet. Due to a lack of English skills and other factors, she hasn’t worked for years and relied on her husband’s salary to take care of her young granddaughter. Ana has used her Spanish skills to intervene in the client’s life and obtain new marriage and guardianship licenses, which have enabled her to receive various benefits. Ana’s still committed to working with her to help her family thrive beyond hardship.
She says she was compelled to assist other immigrants and people in need after immigrating from Mexico with her family as a child. The experience helps her connect with her primarily hispanic clients.
“There’s not many resources available in Columbus Junction so helping people is crucial,” Ana says. “I see helping anybody as a great accomplishment because we experienced the same barriers and I know the struggles of coming here and not knowing anything.”
Mandy says she has especially been impressed by both of her RISE AmeriCorps members’ intuitive natures and problem solving skills in all of their endeavors. As a result, she says their positive reputation has spread around the community to people in need.
“They’ve just been such incredible assets and have gained our community’s trust,” Mandy says. “There's been so many word of mouth referrals and I think that's the biggest accolade they could receive."
Story by Juila DiGiacomo
A Cedar Rapids non-profit with the mission of supporting healthy families and children is innovating their services for Latino and African immigrants. With the recent addition of two AmeriCorps RISE members from these communities, YPN (Young Parents Network) is developing literacy packets and incorporating group support services for African refugees with young children.
YPN’s programming targets parents under age 27 and children within the developmentally crucial time period up to age 5. The organization offers a variety of services to create community among young parents and promote self-sufficiency.
“The services we're able to provide are helping give participants and their young children an opportunity to really grow and thrive as they develop,” YPN Program Manager Meridith Myers says.
Myers says YPN has been serving the immigrant and refugee communities of Cedar Rapids for years. However she says the new RISE AmeriCorps members have helped the organization to expand its opportunities.
RISE AmeriCorps member Maria Barroso has been working diligently with the Hispanic programming staff to provide English literacy packets for children. Bilingual materials in Spanish and English will help parents and children improve their English together.
Another RISE AmeriCorps member, Orline Makengo, is helping adapt the Thursday night “Parent Café” group for young parents who have resettled from Africa. The virtual meeting features a series of relevant questions to spark discussion among parents, with the intention of fostering self-reflection and learning among peers. Makengo is working to gear these sessions towards navigating the unique experience of parenting as a refugee from Africa.
Myers says the goal of Parent Café meetings are to strengthen parents’ “protective factors,” which are characteristics that predict the best outcomes for children while reducing the risk of child abuse. These factors include social connections, a concrete support system, social and emotional competence, knowledge of parenting and child development, and more.
Many young parents may not have their own natural support system, Myers says, so YPN’s programs like Parent Café are a place where parents of all backgrounds can find support in other participants and program staff.
“‘Parent Café’ is also meant to allow parents to get to know other parents with children of similar ages, who may be having similar struggles,” Myers says.
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Despite unprecedented circumstances, AmeriCorps RISE members at Oakridge Neighborhood Services have adapted to meet the needs of the most culturally diverse neighborhood in Des Moines. Through unemployment assistance, a new English language program, care packages, and more, the RISE members have dedicated their year to serving immigrants and refugees in their community.
Oakridge Neighborhood’s newest endeavor is an English language learning class at Des Moines Area Community College, which currently serves about 15 students. Immigrants and refugees from across Des Moines are invited to learn beginner to intermediate-level English skills. Two AmeriCorps RISE members currently serve as teaching assistants for the class’ second session. Moad Ali, Halima Ali, and an English teacher break the class into three groups according to their language level to practice English constructively.
Oakridge Neigborhood’s Adult & Family Director Almardi Abdalla says the class is one of the only in-person English classes in the area. Although Oakridge considered an online format, he says barriers with technology in the community interfered. Many students new to the United States lack experience with the internet and computers. Others simply do not have consistent access.
The class takes place in a large room with social distancing and masks as a health precaution. So far Abdalla says there have been no issues. In fact, attendance has been stellar and many students from the first session re-enrolled for the second.
“People are learning and coming back to class,” Abdalla says. “They’re getting something out of the class so that's why they are investing their time more and more.”
Although the AmeriCorps members provide a variety of direct services, they most consistently help with unemployment assistance. This service entails helping clients file for unemployment or apply for public assistance. In the midst of an economic downturn, Abdalla says these services have been greatly in need.
The AmeriCorps RISE members have also assisted with multiple giveaways for community members in need, such as food care packages. In the last few weeks, they also gave out COVID-19 and winter clothes care packages to 107 families in the area.
“I think overall it was a great success and a great experience,” Abdalla says.
During the initial wave of the pandemic, sharing timely information became another important task to help the community through an uncertain time. Oakridge Neighborhood staff and AmeriCorps RISE members shared information to groups on Whatsapp. Members helped translate COVID-19 information, such as vaccine news and safety advice.
“Although the scope of our activities have been limited since COVID-19, [AmeriCorps RISE members] have been a great addition to our efforts to reach out to and help more people in need,” Abdalla says.
About the Blog
RISE AmeriCorps Members uplift and empower Iowa's refugee and immigrant communities. This blog was created with the intent of sharing these valuable success stories with the public.