Children turning a new page - Catholic Courier

Children turning a new page

ROCHESTER — Music teacher Charlotte Giebel turned up the recording of “Yankee Doodle” for preschool children at Saint’s Place Refugee Child Care Center, which is sponsored by St. Louis Parish in Pittsford.

The children hummed along and shook jingle bells in their hands, although most did not know the words since “Yankee Doodle” is a traditional song of their adopted country and not of their homelands in Eastern Europe and Africa. Humming along with Giebel were children from such countries as Somalia, Ukraine and Sierra Leone.

Prior to the class, Giebel, who chairs the Foundations in Music program at the Hochstein School of Music and Dance, said she didn’t expect the children to know the songs she’d be singing.

“We’ll be doing movement kind of things that don’t take a lot of skills,” she said.

During her class, she led the children through jumping, marching and other exercises.

Some of the children had only recently arrived in America, coming from refugee camps in other nations. Malnutrition and a lack of physical activity had hampered the growth of many of the children, who looked smaller than would their American counterparts of the same age, according to Jen Funkhouser, director of the child-care center.

“A lot of these kids have not had the opportunity to ride a bike or throw a ball,” she said.

She noted that she had worked with one child, age 2, who had never walked down stairs before coming to America. In order to keep track of them in refugee camps, mothers often have to carry their small children, she said, and the children don’t have the opportunity to develop their muscles as quickly as they could in this country.

Funded through a combination of private and public grants, the child-care center opened Sept. 8 and was blessed by Bishop Matthew H. Clark during a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house on Nov. 30. Also in attendance were Father Kevin Murphy, pastor of St. Louis, Deacon John Payne of St. Louis, and several local and state dignitaries.

The center is located in the Family Learning Center, operated by the Rochester City School District, at 30 Hart St. The child-care program operates under the auspices of Saint’s Place, a social ministry of St. Louis. Saint’s Place has worked with Catholic Family Center to help resettle hundreds of refugees in the Rochester area since 1998, according to Colleen Knauf, director.

According to information from the ministry, Saint’s Place has provided household items, furniture, clothing, school supplies and cars to refugees. The program also provides tutoring for children and adults, as well as a summer science camp.

The child-care center is the latest initiative of Saint’s Place. It is designed to meet the unique needs of refugee children whose parents are attending English and job-training classes in the same building, according to Saints’ Place officials. Children get to both play and learn, doing arts, crafts and other activities, according to Jina Rakoski, head teacher.

“We really focus on English,” she said. “We over-exaggerate everything and really pronounce the words.”

Singing songs is also a way to teach the children English, Funkhouser added, noting that the staff “just talk and sing to the children all day.”

Indeed, one could be forgiven for mistaking a day at the child-care center for some kind of scene from “The Sound of Music.” The teachers lead the children in song through most of their activities, from picking up after themselves following snack time to egging each other on to jump “down yonder in the pow-pow patch.”

Cara Fisher, assistant teacher, said she particularly enjoys hearing the children learn English.

“Every day they gain a little more vocabulary,” she said.

And their parents are benefiting as well, according to Paul Burke, director of the city school district’s Department of Workforce Preparation. He noted that the center provides a valuable service to refugee parents because it allows them to focus on learning.

“At a minimum, 40 to 50 adults will be able to participate and further their educational goals and contribute to our society,” he said.

“In the past, refugee parents were not able to attend education classes they needed to due to a lack of viable child-care programs,” Knauf added during the open house.

She also noted that over the last two years, Rochester had seen an increasing number of refugee families come here with children under the age of 5.

“They bring physical and emotional traumas,” she said. “They may have lost parents or seen loved ones killed in front of them.”

On that note, Rakoski said staff members have to approach each child in a sensitive manner. Some may not want to be picked up by a stranger at first, and others have difficulty controlling their temper. Yet progress is apparent every day, Funkhouser said, noting how one formerly difficult child is now helping others.

“I know, firsthand, that their life is changing,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For information on Saint’s Place, visit, or call 585/385-6860.

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