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Local refugee program helps people thrive

Loud noises and bright lights fill many summer nights. But if you’re new to this country and don’t know what fireworks are, the experience can be quite frightening. Knowledge can make a big difference in situations like this.

Thrive, an organization started by the South Wyoming Methodist Church in 2011, offers cultural training and assistance to help refugees in West Michigan better understand our culture so they are able to thrive here, and not just survive.

A 2009 United Nations report shows nearly 42 million people around the world either left or were removed from their homes because of conflicts and other dangerous situations. Today, many refugees currently live in camps for 10 years or more, waiting for an opportunity to go back home again. More often than not, they never get the chance.  

Shortly after World War II, a resettlement program was developed in the U.S. to offer a safe, permanent place for these uprooted people to live. Now approximately 40,000 - 70,000 refugees arrive in America each year from such places as Burma, Bhutan and the Congo region of Africa. Michigan receives around 3,000 of these refugees annually, with 600 or so arriving in Grand Rapids.

Official resettlement programs provide many of the basic needs for up to six months after arrival. Thrive fills in the gaps and provides ongoing support after this time period.

Executive Director Jessica Gladden first became interested in working with refugees when she visited South Africa in 1999. She says she kept getting marriage proposals on that trip from male refugees looking for a way out of the country. It made her realize the harsh situations many of the people are in.

Gladden is now a licensed master social worker who’s finishing her Ph.D. She also speaks fluent Swahili -- a skill that often comes in handy when working with the large number of Congolese refugees here.

Thrive helps refugees in West Michigan in three different ways. The first is by offering English as a second language (ESL) classes at its Wyoming office.

A second way of assisting refugees is through Thrive’s Cultural Broker Program. Volunteers partner with refugee families to give them the tools they need to be successful in our community.

“We figure out their biggest needs and find volunteers to match that,” says Gladden.

She tries to match the volunteer’s interests with what the family needs. About 25 people volunteer currently, but they could always use more help.

The Cultural Broker Program provides private tutors to help the families practice English. Volunteers also help with transportation assistance, either by showing the refugees how to use the Rapid busses or by offering rides. Educating the families on proper infant care and good hygiene are other key components, as well as showing them how to shop for food.

Something as simple as handling incoming mail is an area the agency has found refugees frequently need help with, too. They sometimes can’t tell the difference between important government documents and junk mail.  

Gladden says Thrive aims to spend about a year with each family in the Cultural Broker Program and evaluates their progress every six months.

The third focus of Thrive is social justice and advocacy work. They help educate the community to refugee issues and meet with local legislatures, neighborhood associations and police officers.

Thrive initially began with a seed grant from Metro Ministries, but now relies on donations to sustain itself. All of the services offered to refugees are free as most are living with little income.

The organization is hoping to raise money and awareness with its upcoming Barnstormer music festival benefit on August 24 and 25 at the Petersen Barn in Rockford. The all-volunteer, family-friendly event will feature more than 10 bands, a variety of workshops, arts, activities for kids and much more. Suggested donation amounts for tickets are on the website and guests are encouraged to order them ahead of time.

The goal of the Thrive is to help refugees who’ve lost their homes become physically, emotionally and economically self-sufficient so they can learn how to not simply survive here in America, but thrive as valuable members in our community.

“People are all the same, they want the same things,” Gladden says. “When you meet someone who’s different, you may not know what to do, but just say hello.”

Here are some ways you can help Thrive continue to be an active resource for West Michigan’s refugee community:

-    Visit Thrive online to find out more about them.
-    Donate to Thrive through Network for Good.
-    Volunteer in any number of ways. Thrive will match your skills with what is needed.
-    Attend the Barnstormer music festival on August 24-25.
-    Join the Barnstormer event on Facebook and invite your friends.
-    Like Thrive on Facebook.
-    Follow @ThriveRefugee on Twitter.

Source:  Jessica Gladden, Executive Director at Thrive

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by Thrive.
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