Summer Fun, Enrichment for Refugee Children and Youth


A Student at Refugee Summer Enrichment; Photo by Bill Coleman.

For many affluent kids in the Silicon Valley summer is one activity-packed day camp, sleep away camp and enrichment class after another. Yet for the children of refugee families, newly arrived in the United States and living below the poverty level, it can be a couple of months of nothing to do and nowhere to go. They need enrichment to adjust to life in their new country, but often get nothing.

Thanks to volunteers at Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church (SVPC), and a secular non-profit called Refugee Transitions, 25 refugee children and youth enjoyed two weeks of a free summer day camp recently. They received English instruction and experienced games, crafts, and other activities to help them prepare for school and life in their new community.

A unique aspect of the camp was the pairing of church children and youth with the refugee students, to give both sides windows into new worlds.

“I was really surprised when on the first day of the program so many of the kids came from so many countries,” 15-year-old volunteer Vicky Lee said.  “It’s good because not only are we helping them out with English, they can teach us so much about their countries and cultures, too.”

Adult volunteer Coleen Hausler watched the refugee students open up and feel at home over the two-week camp.

“Seeing their faces they’re so full of hope,” she said. “At the same time they’re trying to figure out their new country.”

The refugee children and youth who participated in the camp have all been in the country one year or less, and know varying levels of English. They came from 10 different countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Central America, representing 11 languages and dialects.

The vision for the camp came from church member Debbie Shaver, who volunteers helping local refugee families through SVPC’s refugee ministry. The church’s congregation began building the ministry several years ago. Last year church leaders provided space for the San Francisco-based Refugee Transitions to open its first office in the Bay Area’s South Bay.

“I was wondering what the (refugee children) were going to do during the summer,” Shaver said. A few of them qualified for summer enrichment with their school district, but the rest would have no services. From Shaver’s question an entire plan for a camp took shape. She took her idea to church leaders and Refugee Transitions staff, who were willing to proceed.

“Ours is a community of faith that believes hospitality is at the very heart of God,” said SVPC’s lead pastor, Rev. Dr. Steve Harrington.  “In this camp we are seeking to reflect that reality by helping refugee children and youth feel more at home here in the Bay Area.”

Another church member, Elsa Amboy, works part time for Refugee Transitions as its South Bay program manager. She and Shaver worked together to create the camp.

“There are no other camps currently available (in the South Bay) for refugee students that are free,” Amboy said. “Most of our families fall under the poverty line, and so we targeted refugees who were under that line and could possibly use such a camp.”

Many hurdles were overcome to make the camp a reality. Volunteers raised approximately $3,000 to pay English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers and purchase materials. Volunteers were found to transport students to the camp. Still more volunteers were recruited to tutor the students, and lead recreational activities, approximately 40 in all.

“I had several goals, and the interaction of our community members was a really important part of it,” Shaver said.  From the start she planned for church members of all ages to work side-by-side with the refugee children. She especially wanted the children of volunteers to be paired with refugee students to help them in their studies and activities.

“The response has been great,” Shaver said. “People were really excited to be participating.”

Another interesting aspect to the camp was its curriculum, which besides English instruction, included teaching the children concepts that will help them in their new communities and schools.

A major emphasis was put on health and safety guidelines. For example, knowing one’s address and phone number, in case of being lost. Eating healthy foods was another focus, as well as the importance of exercise.

Refugee Transitions staff members are encouraging refugees new to America to stick to the diet of their country of origin, Amboy said. She herself has seen refugees put on a significant amount of weight within the first six months of arriving. Not only are refugees tempted to try new American foods, they also will buy cheaper, less nutritious foods because of their low incomes.

Being able to interact with peers at school was also being emphasized at the camp. Recreation time included learning common schoolyard games like Four Square. Calling them “survival skills,” Amboy said children also learned basic things like how to ask to go to the bathroom, or how to share their feelings with teachers.

During ESL instruction one day, instructor Dorothy Dickson led students through an exercise to identify feelings using a magnet board showing a boy and a girl and their various expressions.

“What is the boy feeling?” Dickson asked the dozen children seated in a circle.

“He feels crying,” one young Iraqi girl said.

“That’s what he’s doing, but what does he feel?” Dickson asked. After a little thought the girl said the boy felt sad.

Dickson said it was a challenge to teach to such a wide variety of age and skill levels; she had students from kindergarteners to sixth grade in her class.

“You are teaching to kids who have very little school experience,” she said. “Some are illiterate and have illiterate parents, but some are very literate.”

Susan Miller taught the students from middle school through high school ages. She said she wanted both the refugee students and the student volunteers to be comfortable in class and learn from each other.

“I really wanted them (refugee students) to feel like there are other people in the community they can turn to,” she said.

The successful camp could spark plans for future camps, something Amboy said is needed for the estimated 500 to 600 refugees who settle each year in Santa Clara County alone.

Dickson, a retired English language development specialist for a local school district, thinks the camp could be “canned” and reproduced elsewhere around the United States. There are many challenges to pulling together such a camp, but she said they are challenges worth tackling.

“I think it’s great because the kids are happy, and they’re learning to be positive with one another,” Dickson said. “If they didn’t have this they’d be sitting at home.”