On November 2nd, we were honored to accept the 2018 Showcase Site Award from the ELO Network. To get an inside perspective on the specific work that goes on in our programs, we sat down with Alison Kummer, Student Programs Coordinator at the REC.
Along with being trained in Cultural Competency, Alison has worked in Uganda and South Korea, teaching in a bilingual school setting and working with at-risk populations. Before working at the Refugee Education Center, she worked as paraprofessional in a local Grand Rapids school and also developed curriculum for local after-school programming. She holds a degree is in English Literature & Sociology, is TESOL Certified, and is licensed in Elementary Education.
Q. What is your background that has uniquely suited you for the work you do at the REC?
“Having grown up in Italy and Germany, I was exposed to various cultures and education systems early on in my life. As the Student Programs
Coordinator at the REC, I have the privilege of engaging with students from all around the world, helping to bridge the gap between refugee students, parents, and schools. I’ve been working at the Refugee Education Center for 3 years, and it’s the perfect fit for me!”
Q. The ELO Network’s Showcase Site Award goes to the organization or program that demonstrates dedication and commitment to youth engagement and shows creativity and innovation in programming. Lynn Heemstra, Director of Our Communities Children says, “The REC has shown through STEAM programming to be intentional in your efforts to engage youth from different countries and expose them to quality activities that help them think, learn, engage, and respond.”
Can you tell us more about the ELO Network?
“The Expanded Learning Opportunities Network (ELO) allows the Refugee Education Center to be in connection with other after-school providers around Grand Rapids. Through ELO Network, organizations can exchange resources, support each other, and receive professional development in the areas of socio-emotional learning and STEAM subjects.
Our relationship with the ELO Network serves as a professional learning community (PLC) that helps us stay up to date with latest strategies and methodologies, as well as keeps us accountable to providing quality services to our students and families.
Over the past year, our membership with the ELO Network has allowed our program to grow in the ways we incorporate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math into our program curriculum. It has also better informed our programs in promising practices for socio-emotional development.”
Q. As we work with refugee families, what do you see as parent’s biggest concerns for their children?
“When a family moves to a new country, they carry with them their whole world. A person’s cultural construct, value system, sense of belonging, formal & informal education, and societal expectations deeply define their identity. When thrust into a completely new cultural construct, such as Grand Rapids Michigan, parents and their children are challenged with absorbing everything that is valued and acceptable in their new context, while reckoning with what is still essential and sacred within their own cultural identity.
Every parent is eager to see their child thrive in life; they want them to succeed at school, complete their education, and grow into their full potential. In their own home country, a parent would know how to fight for their child’s success; but now everything has changed.
Often, the chief concern of parents is their own limitation. With a limited knowledge of the American school systems, parental expectations, and cultural values surrounding success, parents often feel overwhelmed and misunderstood. To overcome this enormous challenge, parents need the entire community (educators, administration, staff, and local partners & neighbors) to walk alongside them in this journey, with empathy and respect.”
Q. What are your biggest “aha” moments or bright spots when you see something working well?
It is amazing how much growth a child experiences when there is an investment of intentional time and long-term relationship with an adult who cares about them. When a volunteer trained through the REC invests in the same child (or group of children) over the course of a year or more, they build a relationship of safety and trust. The intentional time spent focusing on the student’s needs allows students to slow down, deconstruct, problem solve, and think critically.
When a volunteer is committed to being present, mentoring, and giving each child the tools they need for success, refugee children begin to defy all the odds against them. Their growth then positively affects their family and their community. It is truly a treasure to experience.
Q. For the students in our program, how do you help minimize some of the difficulties they may face?
“A big part of our role at the REC is not solely to focus on the academic success of our students, but to journey with them as they confront areas of socio-emotional learning in their young developing selves.
So much of what we do as children is self-discovery: the way we play & interact with others, our involvement in sports, arts & music — these are all ways of exploring and experimenting with the world around us. As we try out different things, we learn about ourselves — our likes and dislikes, what works for us and what doesn’t. For a child who has a history of trauma, or a family/community surrounded by a history of trauma, the process of self-discovery can often feel dangerous and sometimes impossible.
Here at the Center, we help students by giving them socio-emotional strategies they will need to interact with the world around them. We talk about triggers, choices, and how to express and manage emotions within social situations, so that they can develop within their own personal journey of self-discovery in a way that feels safe and appropriate for them.”
Q. Why is this cause important to you? Why do you believe in the work we’re doing here at the Refugee Education Center?
In small ways throughout my life, I’ve known what it’s like to feel like a fish out of water — to be the new kid in school and have to learn a new language and new set of “life-rules. Then, once I felt like I blended in, I needed to figure out what made me stand out — what made me “me”. I am grateful to the crucial individuals who came to walk with me along the way. They were patient and kind, and they didn’t treat me like I was “less-than” just because I was learning something new. They didn’t force me to choose one culture over another but allowed me to form my own mixed cultural identity. They expected a lot from me, believed in my potential for success, and believed I was a valuable part of their community.”
“Did you ever have someone who invested in your life and believed in you? This is what every child deserves. West Michigan contains a bounty of resources and individuals with the ability to participate in the growth and development of our community’s children.”