TCU students mentor, provide hope for refugee children

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    Singing and laughter filled the Ladera Palms Apartment Homes Clubhouse as children danced to Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

    The children at The NET’s Refugee Mentoring program are from refugee families across the globe and come together each week to learn manners, the English language and the Christian faith from TCU mentors.

    The NET is a “nonprofit organization in Fort Worth that exists to empower the city to restore dignity to those in poverty through community and relationships,” according to the website. The organization said they decided to create this program with the goal of providing a “life on life” influence.

    Mentors who could be positive examples for the children and create ongoing relationships would provide this influence, said Sarah Adams, assistant director for the NET and Refugee Mentoring coordinator.

    Every Wednesday from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., children ages 5 to 14 living in this southern Fort Worth apartment complex come to the clubhouse to be mentored by TCU student volunteers through story time, conversation, games, singing and more.

    TCU students are the most recruited group for mentor positions, but the program includes other groups as well.

    “Who better to provide a ‘learn by example’ experience than college students who have a little more flexibility in their schedules?” Adams said.

    Adams said this program benefits the volunteer college students in an incomparable way.

    “TCU’s mission is to create ethical leaders and citizens of a global community, and that’s exactly what we offer with refugee mentoring,” Adams said.

    The NET was birthed out of the college ministry of Christ Chapel Bible Church in 2009 and became an independent organization in 2013. According to Adams, faith does play a large role in the organization.

    “We are a faith-motivated organization,” she said. “You don’t have to be a Christian to receive our services, but we do what we do because we feel compelled to serve and love others the way God has done for us.”

    The mission behind all NET programs is to provide relational and emotional relief to marginalized groups such as the homeless, impoverished, resettled refugees and women affected by the sex industry, Adams said.

    “There are a lot of nonprofits in Fort Worth that provide material resources for relief, and that’s great,” Adams said. “But what we provide is a network of people that help to empower others to do things for themselves. People need people more than they need stuff.”

    The Refugee Mentoring program, one of the networks The NET has created, started in November 2013. However, The NET has been working to provide help to children since it began in 2009, Adams said.

    When members of the NET were working on becoming an independent organization at the start of 2013, they didn’t have the capacity to do weekly programs. Instead, they hosted monthly play dates for the children of Ladera Palms.

    However, Adams said they didn’t think this was achieving what they desired.

    “It was not consistent, meaning we didn’t have the same volunteers every time. It was always fun, but we didn’t really accomplish anything specific,” she said.

    She said that as the year went on and the program gained more volunteers, The NET decided it was time to start a weekly mentor program. Thus, Refugee Mentoring was born.

    When refugee families are resettled into America, they are set up in low-income neighborhoods because that’s what the resettling agencies can afford. Their children are often thrown into the mix of students at school and left to fall between the cracks, said Adams.

    “There’s a need not only for academic help, but behaviorally there is a lot of need as well,” Adams said. “If the children have bad behavior, they won’t learn; and if they don’t learn, they’ll have bad behavior.”

    In the Ladera Palms apartment complex, about 500 of the units are occupied by refugee families, Adams said. She said some of the countries represented are Somalia, the Congo, Burma, Thailand, India and Nepal. These families are part of the 4,500 refugees that Texas receives each year, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission website.

    “These families come from war torn countries where they had no choice but to flee,” Adams said. “They land in a new country with a completely new way of life and are grasping to find where they belong.”

    Adams said this was a big motivation for creating the Refugee Mentoring program. When the kids are resettled and thrown into the American school program, the language barrier causes them to struggle and “fake it till they make it,” she said.

    Adams said this means when children are asked questions in their schools, they just nod and say “Yes,” without actually understanding what has been asked of them.

    Some of the kids wanted to share why they love getting to come to Refugee Mentoring every week.

    Bhawana, a 9-year-old girl from Nepal, looks forward to coming every week to Refugee Mentoring. She said what she loves the most is that she “…get[s] to play and have fun and I get to hear new stories about Jesus.”

    Omar, a 7-year-old boy from Africa, said he loves playing games and having fun with his friends.

    According to Adams, the mentors are there to provide relief and teach the kids they don’t have to just struggle through on their own.

    One such mentor, Brittany Carroll, a senior nursing major, said the point of the program is to provide good role models for the kids.

    “Being a part of these kids’ lives every week and pointing them towards Jesus instead of other negative influences that might be around them coming into a new country is what we hope to provide,” Carroll said.

    Adams, a TCU alumna, said her favorite aspect of the program is taking college students with normal lives and introducing them to a group of people whom they wouldn’t have known otherwise.

    “I want to make it as easy as possible for college students to serve,” Adams said. “I went to TCU, I understand what it’s like to want to get involved but feel like you don’t have the capacity to.”

    Carroll said students find the program manageable because they aren’t asked to volunteer ten hours a week — only an hour and a half once a week.

    “A lot of students go on global mission trips in the summer or over spring break,” Adams said. “A lot of them don’t realize that there are global citizens in Fort Worth right down the road that you can spend time with and help on a weekly basis.”

    Part of the motivation behind The NET’s programs is to create communities among these global citizens. Adams said Refugee Mentoring puts that motivation into action.

    “I’ve seen how easy it is for a refugee to stay isolated in their own group. I’ve also seen how easy it is for upper-class white college students to stay in their own group too,” she said. “It’s beautiful to break down those barriers and bring the groups together for a great cause.”

    The most important kind of relief that can be offered to these marginalized groups is through relationships, said Sara Klepacki, a junior Film, Television and Digital Media and communication studies double major.

    “We can’t ever give enough money to the issue,” said Klepacki, an intern for the NET. “But having people who are firsthand mentoring these kids and being a part of their lives and loving them, that to me is the most direct form of alleviation and hope we can provide them.”

    Mentors have a variety of different personal motivations for wanting to volunteer for the program.

    Meredith Trank, a junior psychology and religion double major, said her motivation for getting involved is her faith and her desire to push outside her comfort zone.

    “When I learned about this opportunity to weekly and consistently serve and interact with people of different cultures, I got so excited,” Trank said. “It challenges me to be comfortable talking about my faith with people from a variety of different cultures and backgrounds. It’s what I’m called to do.”

    Connor Close, a junior entrepreneurial management major, said his perspective has changed regarding why he volunteers.

    “At the very beginning it was just to serve and give back to my community,” Close said. “Now that I’ve been back here, I look forward to seeing my friends. These kids are my friends and I love them.”

    Klepacki said that the biggest thing she gains from volunteering isn’t just what she gains from serving the children, but how much they do for her by providing love and joy.

    “Truly it’s just all about love. To be a part of their lives, to get them excited for their future, to have fun and take them out of their circumstances that might be tough, it’s a joy,” Klepacki said. “I always have tons of stories to tell about my little friends that I feel are like my own children.”

    Adams said this program is unlike anything else The NET does because it is the only thing the program does involving children. The NET’s other programs are concerned with adults and deal more with the aftermath of tragedies such as exploitation, abuse and neglect.

    “I love working with children because we get to show them that they’re special, valuable, important and to be protected and cared for,” Adams said. “We get to shape them for the rest of their lives, shape their understanding of America, the city they’re in and most importantly, of God.”

    The most critical part of Refugee Mentoring is creating positive self-esteem in the children, Adams said. Everything they learn or do in the program contributes to self-esteem, which sets them up for success as adults, she said.

    “Imagine being in a place where you are lost and you don’t fully understand or relate to everything,” Adams said. “Having fun, cool, older college kids spend every week with you, caring about you and playing with you, changes the way you view yourself.”

    Close said what really makes all the difference during this program is the “extra time” spent with the kids.

    “The facilitated times are great to talk about Jesus, but it’s hard to make those things palatable for the kids once they get in real-life situations,” he said.

    Close described a situation he had with one of the young boys who had gotten into a fight with another kid at school. Close took the time to sit down and talk with the boy about it and how he could change his behavior.

    The boy came back a week later and told Close that the boys were friends again.

    “The practicality of having real conversations with them is the best part,” Close said. “It’s things like that which make the difference.”