RISE & Shine Blog
Stories of change & hope from our members across the state
RISE & Shine Blog
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.
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Immigrant and refugee professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds came together in a virtual space this winter to share their experiences and insight with eager young minds at the 2020 DREAM Iowa Virtual Youth Leadership Summit. The event took place this past November after being postponed from March due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, it almost didn’t happen at all.
When DREAM Iowa was forced to go virtual last fall, founder Mónica Reyes chose to bring on individuals skilled in videography and photography to fill the needs of the organization. RISE AmeriCorps members Israel Lopez and Ben Moeller were a perfect fit and made the leadership summit project a priority. Since it would take place entirely online, they began preparation right away, collaborating to revive the annual gathering of young immigrants and community leaders from across the state.
Originally scheduled to be in-person, this year’s event took on a much different look as it went virtual for the first time. The summit was completely free of charge and open to middle school through college aged youth.
Programming included presentations, performances, and training sessions from teachers, engineers, attorneys, and other occupations. All of the professional participants come from immigrant and refugee communities. DREAM Iowa awarded several $500 and $1,000 scholarships to high school and college students and raffled off prizes for the younger students.
The summit has three primary goals in service of immigrant and refugee youth: create access to immigrant and refugee professionals, expand career opportunities, and award financial aid for higher education. These goals help to drive DREAM Iowa’s mission of building intergenerational wealth for immigrant Iowans.
DREAM Iowa founder Mónica Reyes understood that many young immigrants never have the chance to interact with professionals in fields such as engineering or law. Establishing those relationships became a focus for the annual event. In addition, the summit aims to expand horizons for immigrant youth by connecting them to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and careers.
Reyes also knows how difficult it is for young people to afford higher education, as she faced significant obstacles in paying for college herself. She worked multiple jobs and took on student loan debt just so she could pursue her career interests. When Mónica saw the critical need for financial aid to support immigrant youth, she started a scholarship fund specifically for young immigrants in her community. The fund became a key component of DREAM Iowa’s innovative leadership summit.
The summit began in 2016 as a way to encourage civic engagement among immigrant and refugee communities. Immigrant youth were trained on how to participate in the Iowa Caucus, and they then built important leadership skills when they taught their family and friends to caucus as well.
In 2017 the summit shifted its focus to increasing access to higher education and creating new career opportunities for immigrant youth. Reyes envisioned this new initiative as a place where immigrant and refugee professionals would share their stories about breaking barriers and achieving lifelong dreams. “Young immigrants can see themselves in those stories,” says Reyes. In this way, the team at DREAM Iowa truly lives up to its name.
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
From dance to painting to puppet-making, ArtForce Iowa’s weekly workshops are helping young people across Iowa heal through creativity. By combining discussions about mental health with hands-on art sessions, youth from underserved populations are learning to express themselves while building resiliency.
The non-profit organization’s workshops benefit refugees, immigrants, and first-generation Americans who are survivors of violence and crime. Adolescents involved in the juvenile or family court systems are another focus. The young artists, aged 12-19, participate in weekly virtual calls where RISE AmeriCorps members create a safe space to discuss emotions and set art-making goals.
Yvette Zaród Hermann, ArtForce Iowa’s arts outreach educator, says the team has been able to head-off mental health crises by either being there for the young artists or alerting others about emergencies. One workshop participant, who will remain anonymous, has benefitted from the extra support amidst her own crisis. Hermann says she suffers from self-harm and other severe mental health issues, which has placed her in a treatment facility away from home. Her father speaks an obscure dialect from the Burma, Thailand region which has made communication about his daughter’s recovery nearly impossible. Throughout the turmoil, she now has an arts community to confide in as well as an outlet for self-expression.
“She’s able to just draw with us and tell us everything that’s going on.” Hermann says. “It’s amazing for all of us because we all feel so grateful that we’re able to reach someone who the system has been trying to stuff down the cracks.”
The RISE AmeriCorps members are responsible for planning and facilitating the art workshops around social-emotional goals and trauma-informed practices. Hermann says the members write a mental health-related question of the day to foster discussion. An art therapist also works with the organization to help design certain interventions. For example, individuals who have experienced severe trauma are encouraged to use messy, free-form materials during their art sessions to avoid restrictions and promote healing.
After each workshop, the AmeriCorps members meet up and decide which students are in need of extra help in any way. Through this work, Hermann says the AmeriCorps members are learning the basics of case management in a loving, supportive way.
This year’s RISE AmeriCorps teams have especially resonated with the young people due to their age and understanding of social justice principles. Youth leadership has always been a goal in ArtForce Iowa’s eight years of existence. But Hermann says this year that vision has been realized. All four RISE AmeriCorps members are 19 - 22 years old and two members were previously students in Art Force Iowa’s programs.
“They come with their whole hearts and I think it’s really opened up the possibilities for our work.” Hermann says. “We’re able to learn more about young people’s lives when there are young people leading and there are less adults in the room.”
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
The last several months at Iowa City Compassion have encompassed a wide range of service work designed to lift up immigrant and refugee communities. Although COVID-19 has caused the number of in-person volunteers to dwindle, the organization has been busy planning several new programs to engage community members while getting volunteers back on board.
Stecker says the second big project on its way in early 2021 is a computer lab, where RISE members and volunteers will teach computer skills, English, job training, and more. The room will be separated into one half for adults learning computer and job skills and the other half for ESL students who are struggling with online schooling. This set-up is designed with a family focus so parents and children can simultaneously receive the training they need to succeed.
Stecker says the computer lab will allow adults to learn essential computer skills for employment, such as designing resumes and applying for jobs online. She says the extra assistance is also of utmost importance to young ESL students who have struggled with virtual school during the pandemic.
“The stress has been that ELL kids are falling way behind, especially because the schools keep switching,” Stecker says.
In addition to the two new programs on the horizon in 2021, RISE members have been making impacts in many other areas. In late October, several RISE members assisted with the logistics of the University of Iowa’s free mobile clinic while it was stationed at Iowa City Compassion. Other RISE members focused on cooking and delivering meals to elderly who were shut-in at home. Several others spent their time interpreting meetings or assisting with a winter coat drive. Through such varied tasks, RISE members are finding their roles and helping the programs at Iowa City Compassion grow.