BURLINGTON - Kids need mentors, adults other than their parents who share activities and act as sounding boards. So says Burlington-based nonprofit Mobius. Its website points out that children who have "at least one positive relationship with a caring, responsible adult" are less likely to drink alcohol, get involved with drugs and violence, and drop out of school.
For the past four years, Mobius has been recruiting adults to volunteer with one of 19 different Chittenden County mentoring programs; this winter, the organization is searching for people to work with a specific population: refugees and immigrants.
"We realized that there were hundreds of refugee children here in Chittenden County," says Mobius Executive Director Andrea Torello, "and the school systems were really struggling to help them."
Mobius won a grant to fund an outreach effort aimed at people interested in working with new Americans. Why the special push? Torello notes that people who volunteer to work with these kids need to understand that they don't just need help with homework; these newcomers are frequently struggling to learn the language, and need help bridging an often vast cultural divide. It's a different kind of mentoring relationship.
To help potential volunteers grasp the complexities of this assignment, Mobius is sponsoring a series of four panel discussions at Champlain College. The first, in November, drew 85 people, 16 of whom signed up to become mentors. The second, a talk entitled "The Joys and Challenges of Adjusting to American Culture," took place last Thurs- day night. More than 40 audience members heard from locals who hosted refugee families through the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, as well as from refugees who spoke about their own experiences here.
Their stories underscored the idea that one person can make a difference, and offered a glimpse into just how difficult it can be for new Americans to matriculate into society.
Hassan Kulow, for example, arrived in Vermont on March 24, 2004. The Somalia native - who now works for the Burlington School District as a liaison to refugee students - came to Vermont from a refugee camp in Kenya with his wife and their three young children. He recalls they were the only refugee family on the flight from Newark to Burlington, and when the plane touched down, he was reluctant to get off. "I just wanted somebody who I knew," he says.
The family soon met Anne Broekhuizen, who opened her home to them for a week and continues to be involved in their lives; she also spoke at the event. "Anne helped with everything," said Kulow. "Shopping, appointments, banking, clothing, rents and bills, and how to manage."
"The most challenging part for refugees here," he continued, "is the language." Kulow actually spoke some English when he arrived, but some, he said, get confused by bills or official notices that come in the mail. "They just look at the paper, and they keep it under the bed," Kulow said, "because they don't know what it's about."
Assisting kids learn English isn't the only way potential mentors can help, as other speakers pointed out. VRRP volunteer coordinator Judy Scott, who was also on the panel, told the audience it's important for kids to get to know college-educated people. "Children need to understand what the possibilities are for them," she said.
Anne Geroski, a University of Vermont professor who has hosted three refugee families, spoke about the need for Vermonters to be "cultural brokers." She advised people looking to help to get involved with kids and "get them out to do fun things."
Mobius' Torello said mentoring volunteers undergo a rigorous background check and complete a training course before being matched with mentees. The organization requires a commitment of one to three hours a week for at least one year.
The next workshop, entitled "Local Issues, Local Challenges," takes place on January 17. Torello says the gatherings are serving their purpose.
She recalls one mentoring volunteer said, "'I didn't realize how even the smallest thing, like teaching someone to drive, could be helpful.' Perhaps people think they need some high-level skill to participate in helping, yet there are so many small things that people have to offer that they can be doing to help."
For more information about Mobius, mentoring or upcoming talks, call 658-1888.