BRIGHTON — One summer, when 16-year-old Kim Magee was volunteering at the Refugee Educational Activities Program, she and other volunteers brought in clothes they no longer wore to give to the refugee children attending the program.
“The next day you saw these kids wearing your clothing you just didn’t like anymore, and they thought it was the coolest thing ever just wearing your clothing,” she said.
Her fellow volunteer, Regina Nowicki, 15, added that she’s always moved by how the children appreciate anything they receive.
“When you give them something, their faces light up,” she said. “These kids use everything, and they don’t take things for granted.”
Kim and Regina, both from Fairport, were among more than a score of teenage and adult volunteers who helped at REAP, which took place this year at Our Lady of Mercy High School on weekday mornings from July 17 to Aug. 4.
The annual summer camp, which is funded by private donations, is organized by Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Clary, a math teacher at Hope Hall in Gates. She said she was inspired to start the program by reports that Kosovar refugees were going to be resettled in Rochester by Catholic Family Center in 1999.
“I wanted to help the children to be able to adapt to life in America,” she said.
In addition to teaching the children, REAP helps them in practical ways, she said, noting that on Aug. 2, the children received backpacks to use for school in the fall.
REAP volunteers tutor the children in basic math and English, and also play games with them and participate in other activities, she said. Jim Morris, program manager for refugee resettlement at Catholic Family Center, said REAP provides a valuable service to the children because some of them arrive in the Rochester area after the registration deadline for summer school.
“For those kids who miss the deadline, it’s a great thing to do for three weeks,” he said.
He added that REAP helps the children make the transition to their new home.
“It’s a time for them to get to know some of the other kids in the community, whether their own ethnic community or the larger refugee community,” he said.
This year’s program drew 40 children, ages 4 to 14, from such countries as Sudan, Somalia, Liberia and Kosovo, Sister Clary added. Indeed, the casual observer would have been struck by the variety of clothing the children wore, many of them sporting colorful headdresses and other types of garb from their native lands.
One of the children, Arthur Blay, 13, said he was from the African nation of Ghana and added that he’s been residing in the United States since spring of this year.
“I love America because America is good,” he said. “We go to school and learn, and my family love America.”
He added that he enjoyed REAP.
“The teachers, they play with us, and we play for some time, so I love my teachers,” he said.
He also noted he was a big soccer fan.
“I like soccer because soccer (players) make money,” he said.
Teaching the children athletic skills was one of the tasks entrusted to Kelly Condillo, a 19-year-old parishioner of St. John of Rochester Church in Fairport. Many of the children were just learning basketball for the first time, he said.
“They double-dribble all the time, but they can do anything with a ball if you give it to them,” he said.
Like many volunteers, he said he was struck by the children’s resilience, noting that little problems don’t bother them, and he surmised that the difficult lives they had led overseas had toughened them. That was a notion shared by Sandy Kyle-Orlando, a parishioner of St. Thomas More Church in Brighton.
“They’re very warm and loving children, and I don’t think we know the half of what these children have been through,” she said.
She said her daughter, Alexa Orlando, 18, was so moved by her experiences volunteering at REAP for the last seven years that she decided to go into teaching, and used REAP as the topic for her college-application essay. The children may not always speak proper English, Alexa Orlando said, but they are more than willing to open up and share about their lives with the volunteers.
“It’s nice to see a smile on their face when we help them out,” she said.
Mary LaShomb, who attends St. John of Rochester, has been volunteering with REAP since 1999. She noted that she and her family have developed relationships with some of the refugee children’s families, inviting them on trips to local shopping malls and taking them to movies. Like many of the volunteers, she said she was impressed by how hard the children are willing to work.
“We give them homework … and they are so proud to bring the homework back,” she said. “It’s just refreshing to work with kids who want to learn.”
The children’s attitudes may reflect that of their parents, if an interview with Arthur Blay’s mother, Odellor Tarnue, is any indication. She noted that she and her husband and their four children fled to Ghana from the Ivory Coast, which has been plagued by civil strife in recent years. Like her son, she expressed thankfulness for the chance to start a new life in America.
“America is alright because in Africa where I was I used to suffer with my children,” she said. “In America, they have school, and they have food to eat, and they have shelter.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about REAP, call Dawn Gruba at 585/641-8172 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.