Imagine what it’s like to flee your home country to escape persecution. Imagine living in a refugee camp and learning that you’ve been selected to move to the United States with your family. Imagine being a new resident of the United States and joining immigrants and refugees from around the world for a traditional Thanksgiving meal.
Those are the stories that members of Rotary 14 heard as they joined participants in the Literacy Class for adults at Everett Elementary School recently.
Participants in this year’s Family Literacy Program at Everett are from Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Mexico, Guatemala, Burma and other countries. Each day, they meet at the school to participate in classes to learn English, healthy lifestyle practices, vocational education and computer skills among other items in the curriculum. The program, offered by faculty from Southeast Community College in cooperation with Lincoln Public Schools, is designed to help parents of students in the school.
“I’ve been meeting with these folks for 10 years, and each year we get a new group,” notes instructor Matt Kohrell. “During our time together, it’s rewarding to watch these folks grow to become contributing citizens in Lincoln and to see friendships develop among the participants.”
As the men and women learn English and gain life skills, they become more comfortable living in the United States. And, as a bonus, they are given the opportunity to read to their children in class at the school to experience American education.
This year, members of Rotary 14 provided and served a typical American Thanksgiving meal for the Everett Family Literacy participants. Not only did they bring the meal to the school, they sat with the program participants to learn about their backgrounds and what they think of life in the United States.
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“I’m thrilled that members of our club do this every year,” said Angela Boule. “Our club adopted Everett Elementary several years ago, and our members get involved with the students and their parents in a variety of ways.” Boule and Christie Weston co-chair the club’s Everett Elementary Committee.
“It’s an emotional trip to be there,” said Mark Stephens, a past president of the club. “Last year someone pointed across the room and said, ‘See that young lady over there? Two weeks ago she was in a refugee camp in Iraq.’ That deeply touched me,” Stephens added.
Another Rotarian, Pat Leach, head of Lincoln’s libraries, said, “I have so much respect for families who make what must be a very difficult choice to leave the home they know to re-locate somewhere completely different. I just hope that the Rotary Thanksgiving dinner conveys the feeling that they and their families are valued and welcome in their new home.”
Michelle Venter of the Lincoln Community Playhouse put it this way: “It gave me an opportunity to help people in need along with others who share the same ethos. The people present in the room . . . the people who received a well-rounded meal . . . spoke volumes, not necessarily with words as there were language barriers. Instead, they spoke with smiles and a true appreciation for the meal.”
A relative newcomer to Lincoln himself (he moved here from New York), Jay Wexler observed, “To sit at a table and talk to women from six countries was truly an inspiring experience for me. I was so proud to be a part of this group of Rotarians.”
Rotary 14 has been focusing much of its volunteer and financial help on Everett Elementary and the area South of Downtown where the school is located. In addition to serving a Thanksgiving meal, club members of read to some of the students each week, participate in special school activities and volunteer in other ways. Just a year ago, the school playground was completely rebuilt with a grant from the club’s foundation. And, in the past year the club helped support the South of Downtown Art Hub, which provides a variety of activities and programs for Everett families and others in the area.
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