RISE & Shine Blog
Stories of change & hope from our members across the state
RISE & Shine Blog
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.
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Despite hurdles this year, the Catherine McAuley Center’s online classes are taking off again with the help of RISE members. CMC’s tutoring program, which primarily supports immigrants and refugees, hosted its largest online orientation for new volunteers in October.
Volunteer & Outreach Manager Katie Splean says that the transition online was slow at first as the program gauged students’ interest and comfort level online. Computer skills were an initial barrier in signing up members of the immigrant & refugee community.
However, Splean says classes are picking up again recently after moving online this summer. In addition to training 20 new tutors at the October orientation, there are currently about 150 students working with about 90 volunteers.
Berryhill says her favorite part of her service is interacting with the students and tutors over Zoom and watching them laugh and have fun with each other.
“CMC's education program relies on strong, positive relationships between students, staff, and volunteers, so knowing that students and tutors are able to forge these connections even through an online format makes me very happy,” Berryhill says.
After a year of dealing with a pandemic and the derecho, Splean says tutoring can also help redirect students to other CMC resources when they are in need. By building a strong relationship and learning about students’ lives, tutors can help them find assistance.
She says students report feeling as though their tutor genuinely cares as a result.
“It just means a lot that when [clients] walk into our four walls or when they are connecting with somebody who's affiliated with us virtually, they're getting that sense of welcome like they belong here,” Splean 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.