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Connecting young newcomers to schools, communities, and futures

“Families that come into the Refugee Services program at Catholic Charities are always eager to help their children start school as soon as possible – they are so excited for their children to have access to education, they look forward to this so much.”

Students participating in the youth education services and mentorship services work together on word worksheets. These programs both support learning objectives and provide friendships to students – connecting them to their communities with volunteer support and field trips.

By Amber Kemp with Ashley Wiskirchen

In April of 2023, a newcomer from El Salvador arrived with her two young daughters, ages nine and six, bringing with them her mother – their grandmother, and her sister – their aunt. They arrived without family awaiting them in the United States, adding a layer of anxiety to their transition. Who would be there to help? How would they adjust to their new home? What could they expect from a new community?

“When they arrived, the children did not yet know English,” shared Refugee Services Youth and Education Coordinator, Amber Kemp, “so my staff and I dove into the services that would support their English language learning and starting school.”

The first step to school enrollment is to schedule an appointment with the English Language department, in this case at Columbia Public Schools. Amber and her co-worker Nohemi Trujillo, the Youth and Education Specialist, scheduled the intake and arranged for safe transportation to and from the testing session. They assisted with orienting the family to the test and explained the results.

“Most of our newcomer clients are eligible to enroll in a school that has an English Language, or EL program,” Kemp shared, “These two students qualified as well, so we started the process of enrollment as soon as we could.”

Together Kemp and Trujillo began the school enrollment paperwork, helped the family access free and reduced lunch while they work their way toward self-sufficiency, provided backpacks and school supplies, and oriented the family on how to ride the school bus.

“Families that come into the Refugee Services program at Catholic Charities are always eager to help their children start school as soon as possible,” Kemp shared, “They are so excited for their children to have access to education, they look forward to this so much.”

After beginning school, the students’ mother expressed concern that her daughters were struggling to learn. Despite enrollment in the English Language program, the girls felt adrift and were having trouble being immersed in English and hitting their learning objectives.

Thankfully, Catholic Charities has a more intensive youth and education service to help with this precise need. Kemp and Trujillo enrolled the girls in the Youth Mentoring and Academic Support program – connecting these students to the new summer programming that would enhance English language learning, provide tutoring support for subjects at school, and even offer educational trips to explore the community with peers.

“Together we visited Warm Springs Ranch, Daniel Boone Regional Library, and the University of Missouri Campus,” Kemp shared.

 “Despite the language barrier, we saw the girls quickly make friends with the other students in this summer program,” she continued, “We would often see them walking together – this group of girls holding hands as new friends.”

The students took full advantage of the opportunity to learn and participate, excitedly attending the program and exploring the educational activities offered throughout the session, which lasted from May through December of 2023.

“Their mother came to me,” Kemp shared, “and expressed that not only had their English improved and that they were speaking English more often at home – but that they were more positive toward school and excited to attend.”

Throughout the year, the staff members of Catholic Charities Refugee Services welcome newcomers at the airport, provide intensive resettlement case management, and accompany families as they integrate into their new communities. From healthcare access to orientation on renting and homeowning, employment services, and English Language Training – the “to-do” list of rebuilding life in a new country is quite long.

“But pretty much every family looks forward to enrolling their children in school, getting them access to education as quickly as possible, and we’re there to help support their success,” Kemp said.

She concluded, “With this family, like many others, we saw the children grow in their ability to learn, but also in their own self-confidence – they were transformed by these services and their family were so proud to share in their success and their joy, with us.”