Utah Dream Center: providing much needed education

Story and slideshow by COLLIN McLACHLAN

Last time you were around Thanksgiving dinner and you had to go around the table and say what you’re thankful for, did you say “a chance to go to school and get an education”? If you did say that, did you really mean it?

For refugees who attend the Utah Dream Center’s Open Door reading classes, anyone can see that they mean it.

The Utah Dream Center is a nonprofit organization that operates on the west side of Salt Lake City, near an area of refugee housing. According to the Center’s website, its students are devoted to “transforming their neighborhood into a thriving community.” The Utah Dream Center “holistically provides physical, educational and Christian programming to strategic neighborhoods throughout the state of Utah.”

The Center has a number of different programs that are designed for the benefit of people who are living on the west side of Salt Lake. Some of these programs are: Open Door, an after-school reading tutor program; SierraAlta Bible College; Arts Academy; Urban Flow, a multicultural dance class; and a clothing outreach program. Most of the programs that are offered at the Dream Center are free and open to the public.

The Dream Center works with refugees who come from all over the world. Volunteers from the Dream Center will go recruiting by knocking on doors of the apartments near the Center and inviting residents to participate in the activities.

“One of my favorite things is when we do the reading part of the program,” said Susanna Metzger, 27, director of the Open Door after-school reading program, in an interview. “Just reading books with the kids, I can see them learning and improving. I think that’s really awesome.”

The Dream Center focuses on a faith in Christ to effect change in the community. Its website states, “Jesus Christ’s transforming power compels us to emphasize compassion, hope and restoration in each of our programs.” The Dream Center, however, deals with immigrants from all over the world, some from areas with state religions.

“We do not try to force a religion on them,” Metzger said. “Once parents realize that we’re here to just help with their education, or feed them dinner, then I think they start to be more at ease with us.”

Metzger directs the Open Door program. It meets every Monday for reading or math tutoring. Metzger says anyone is allowed to come and receive free tutoring. A Dream Center volunteer will either help a child with their math or reading homework, or will read a book with them.

“It’s loosely structured at the beginning,” Metzger said. “So when the kids show up we’ll play with them and hang out, build relationships.” After the building relationships portion, the students will split up into two groups according to their age. These groups will rotate between reading or homework and doing crafts.

Metzger has been a part of the Open Door program for about four years. Being the director of the program, she leads the 12 to 15 regular volunteers the Dream Center has in personally tutoring the 40 to 50 kids who come in every Monday, which she says is a challenge. She says that what she loves most is seeing a student learn something. “A concept will catch in their heads and it’s one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments,” Metzger said. “I get to experience that with them. I love it.”

Shalom Boutwell, 20, has been volunteering at the Dream Center for nearly a year. In an interview, she talked about why a lot of kids love the Center. “It’s easy for a student to become comfortable because all the other students are ones they go to school with,” Boutwell said. “They’re growing up together and learning together at the same time.”

Boutwell says that her favorite thing to see is when students are excited for the opportunity to learn. “They look forward to it every week, they run to our cars as we pull up, they’re sitting on their porches waiting for us to come knocking,” Boutwell said with a smile. “They love it, and I love building those relationships, to have the students remember your name every time you come, best feeling in the world.”

Marien Niwenshupi, 13, has been a student at the Dream Center for about two years.“My favorite thing is coming and talking to the ladies,” Niwenshupi said. “They really help a lot with your homework. That’s what I really like.”

Volunteers for the Open Door program found Niwenshupi by knocking on her door. She is from Zambia, and is very grateful for the opportunity she now has to attend school.

Niwenshupi said that in Zambia, “it’s really hard because your parents have to pay money, and in Africa, that is hard because they don’t have jobs. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to pay for their students.” If parents, like hers, can’t afford to send their kids to school, they are never able to go.

“But here, it’s really nice. They pay for your school,” Niwenshupi said, with optimism in her eyes. “I wish I was there right now, because I would say ‘Yeah, I’m going to school!’”

Niwenshupi said the Center offers a lot of fun activities. “It’s a good place to be on Mondays,” she said.

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Volunteering at any age

Story and photo by Jessica Gonzales

Ann Mayne moved to Salt Lake City from Texas in 1991 to be closer to her son after her husband died. The change was difficult for her, and adjusting to a new community with no friends and little family made her feel helpless. At age 60, she was uncertain of what her future would be like now that she was alone.

“One morning I woke up and I said ‘What am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ I had no roots here, no sense of belonging,” she said.

Mayne’s life changed later that year after seeing a flyer for the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) at her local library. RSVP is part of one of the largest volunteer programs offered to those 55 years and older and is sponsored through the Salt Lake County Aging Services. After contacting the program, she was put in touch with the Utah Cancer Society, where she volunteered her time as a record taker and became actively involved working in other community partnerships.

Eighteen years later, Mayne continues to volunteer her time taking records in various projects, including the Healthy Aging program and RSVP at the Salt Lake County Aging Services. She spends most of her time volunteering when she can, tracking RSVP volunteer hours and collecting data from organizations involved in the program. “Volunteering has saved my life,” said Mayne, now 78. “When you help others, you help yourself.”

For seniors like Mayne, RSVP is an opportunity for them to donate their time to serving the needs of the community. Tutoring, providing meals for the elderly and involvement in environmental awareness programs are some of the many activities volunteers participate in through RSVP.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, RSVP significantly increases public support for organizations and increases the number of clients served in the organization. In return, volunteers benefit from the socialization with those whom they interact and gain a sense of belonging for contributing their time.

“They do like the involvement of what they’re doing and the fact that they are helping someone is very important to them,” said Vicki Hansen, program assistant for RSVP at Salt Lake County Aging Services. “Then they find out it makes a difference in their own lives as well.”

RSVP began in 1971 as part of a national network of community service programs called Senior Corps. Its mission is to provide volunteer opportunities for the aging community to use their talents and skills to help out their local community. RSVP has been a major success nationwide and in 2006, there were around 480,000 volunteers nationally who donated 66 million hours of their time in their local communities through the program.

Salt Lake County Aging Services has sponsored the program since 1974. There are currently 1,150 active volunteers whose ages range from 55 to 99. Last year alone, more than 200,000 hours of volunteer service were contributed to 70 community organizations, such as the University of Utah Hospital, local school districts and art museums. Collecting diverse agencies and programs is what Hansen aims to provide to guarantee volunteers are placed in an organization where they feel comfortable and confident to volunteer in.

“It’s all about matching the interests of the volunteer,” Hansen said. “Whenever someone is passionate about something and they’re enjoying what they’re doing, they feel better about what their involvement is.”

At the Kearns Food Pantry, most of the workers are RSVP volunteers. A total of 14 RSVP volunteers are active at the pantry, many who have been there for several years. Last month, the pantry fed about 2,900 needy people and volunteers donated 350 hours of their time.

“We wouldn’t have a food pantry if we didn’t have volunteers,” said Bobbie Mayberry, coordinator for the Kearns Food Pantry. “They love coming here.”

Loretta Mann, 77, became an RSVP volunteer for the pantry two years ago after she noticed an advertisement for the program at her local library. After retiring from her job at a local bank, she decided volunteering would be a great opportunity to spend her free time and engage with others in her community. Mann donates eight hours of her time each week at the Kearns Food Pantry with other volunteers whom she considers her family. She sorts and distributes food alongside with other RSVP volunteers, who have given meaning to her life .

“I really feel like I’m helping,” she said with a large grin on her face. “It will make you feel like you are needed.”

Loretta Mann, right, participates with other RSVP volunteers at the Kearns Food Pantry.

“The feedback I get from folks is amazing,” Vicki Hansen said. “The more involved they stay, the more healthy they seem to be.”

For the future of the RSVP program, Hansen hopes to see the amount of volunteers increase and become involved as the Baby Boomer generation retires. The benefits she says, will not only strengthen the community, but also strengthen the confidence of the volunteer and unlock the hidden talents they may have never discovered.

“We’re looking for people who want to initiate change,” Hansen said. “The more we have that, the better off our community will be as a whole.”

Diversity is complicated for refugees in Utah


In a state that is 93 percent white, Gerald Brown represents diversity.

Brown is white. He wears bow ties and peers through round-rimmed glasses. When asked if he speaks foreign languages, he says, “Only Southern.” When asked what his epitaph might read, he says, “A Holy Man.” And when asked if refugee caseworkers are tough, he says without hesitation, “Shit.”

Brown, 57, is the director of the Refugee Services Office in the Utah Department of Workforce Services. He works as a sort of traffic cop at the intersection of politics and nonprofit groups, coordinating efforts to help refugees integrate into Utah’s communities and culture.

Brown became director of the Refugee Services Office in February 2008 after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered its creation. Huntsman and the state legislature appropriated $200,000 to fund the office, the first time state money has been provided specifically for refugees. The sum is small, Brown said, less than 10 percent of the money he receives from the federal government. However, it as a sign that the state is willing to invest in refugees, he said.

“I need Huntsman for another term,” Brown said, referring to the upcoming elections. “He gets it.”

A self-described “lefty activist type,” Brown wants democratic Sen. Barack Obama to be elected president in November. He figures that with a Democratic president, Republican Gov. Huntsman will be re-elected in Utah and not called to a cabinet position in Washington.

Before Gov. Huntsman’s executive order, the Refugee Services Office consisted of “one guy and a cubicle,” Brown said. Now the office has six employees and one volunteer coordinator.

While he enjoys working in Utah, Brown’s fondness for the state and its governor only goes so far. He expressed frustration with the organizational difficulties of his job. One of his office’s goals is to build a network of trained volunteers to assist caseworkers. But, he said, the bureaucracy is slowing it down.

“Do we have trained volunteers on the ground yet? Nope. Because we’re still meeting,” Brown said.

Brown began his work in the field of refugee services assisting Cambodians at a YMCA in Houston in 1981. It was his first-hand experience that inspired him to be an advocate and an activist. The most effective activists, he said, are those who have had similar exposure to diverse populations.

Brown both praises and criticizes Utah in this respect. He accuses many Utahns as being insular and in many cases ignorant when compared with other groups of people he has worked with.

Peter Robson works as an interpreter for refugees at the Asian Association of Utah. He said that he included his work experience at a refugee resettlement agency on his resume. As he interviewed for jobs this past summer, many employers would ask him about it.

“These were well-informed people, but they were surprised that there were real refugees in Salt Lake,” Robson said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah’s population in 2006 was identified as 93.5 percent white and only 5.1 percent black, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

Robson, 23, is a native Utahn. Growing up in his east Salt Lake City neighborhood he was separated, and not just from the refugee community, he said.

“It’s easy to insulate yourself and separate yourself from anyone who is less-privileged,” Robson said.

Robson said his experiences working with the refugee community have changed his underlying career goals – salary and other considerations are no longer as important as the satisfaction that comes from helping people.

Robson is similar to many people that Brown knows in Utah. Brown said he is baffled by how simultaneously sheltered and eager the volunteers he finds here are.

“Utah County is the volunteer capital of the U.S.,” Brown said, “It’s like the perfect job.”

Brown said that diversity is edifying and that people need to begin to realize that the world is getting smaller and people are more reliant upon each other than ever.

While Brown may feel that Utah is not a hub of diversity, he maintains that Utah is the “Wild West for resettlement work,” meaning that he feels so much is possible because people and organizations are so willing to help. And despite his criticism insularity, Brown said that one of the reasons it is so easy to work with people in Utah is that they are conservative and relatively nondiverse. ”

They have no complicated experiences,” he said, “and people seem generally nice.” Brown epitomizes in many ways the unique and unlikely diversity of Utah.

Diversity, Brown said, is a two-way street – a street on which he directs the traffic.

And doing so, Brown said, “I have had the privilege to get to know the world.”

Salt Lake City is fighting human trafficking


Human trafficking usually starts with despair and a desire for something better and often ends in tragedy. Human trafficking is the act of illegally transporting victims for slavery from one country to another. It has become increasingly common around the world.

Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry that relies on hopelessness and unawareness as a means of luring individuals and families to be tricked and sold into slavery. Deborah Bulkeley, a reporter with the Deseret News who has written several articles on human trafficking in Utah, said the majority of victims are women who are usually forced into prostitution.

“These women work just as any other prostitute would but do not receive any compensation for what they do, but rather get abused and suffer for their work,” Bulkeley said.

It is estimated that more than 12 million people are victims of human trafficking; 80 percent are female and 50 percent are under the age of 18, according to the End Human Trafficking Web site. Between 600,000 and 800,000 victims are trafficked across international borders every year and the numbers continue to increase.

Utah’s legislature is now stepping up to the challenge of combating human trafficking locally as well as nationally.

In 2006, The U.S. Department of Justice announced that Salt Lake City would receive $450,000 in grants to supplement a new human trafficking task force. The main priority is the proper training of law enforcement.

“One of the big needs is training of basically everyone from law enforcement to first responders to anyone who could be in a position to identify a case of human trafficking,” said Melodie Rydalch, public information officer for the Utah office of the U.S. Attorney. “We are convinced there are cases out there. We just need to look closer and ask more questions.”

Efforts to identify and prosecute human traffickers are being stepped up. The 79 national convictions involving human trafficking in fiscal year 2006 were more than double the convictions the previous year. Utah had two of those convictions.

With the success comes the knowledge that more needs to be done.

A few different organizations focus on the victims of human trafficking. The International Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York City, has a refugee resettlement office in Salt Lake City

Victims of human trafficking usually arrive at the IRC after they have been found, rescued and stabalized. “Most of our work is to stabilize the refugee until the persecution has stopped and then get them resettled into the country,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the IRC in Salt Lake.

“It’s important to establish protocols for helping victims once they’re rescued,” Rydalch said.

A second organization is the Utah Health and Human Rights Project. The agency “promotes the health, dignity, and self-sufficiency of refugees, asylees, and immigrants who have endured severe human rights abuses, including torture, war-related trauma, and human trafficking,” according to the UHHP Web site.

Catholic Community Services of Utah is another support group for refugees. CCS “provides comprehensive resettlement services to refugees from various regions of the world,” according to its Web site.

All agencies need volunteers and donations. IRC Salt Lake City, for example, is seeking warm winter clothing, comforters, gift cards to local grocery stores and other items. The office also holds orientation sessions for individuals interested in volunteering.

 “Money is a powerful tool,” Poulin said. “With money we can actually support these victims and give them food and shelter.”

Gerald Brown: Fighting for those who cannot fight back


The man is happier than any man should rightfully be for a 7:30 a.m. meeting, but in his line of work, this is the least stressful part of his day. Donned in a bow tie, thick-rimmed glasses with Coke-bottle lenses, and topsiders, and for a man in his position, he looks the part.

He deals with grants (or lack thereof), crime (both with clients and against), family issues (his and his clients), resettlements, and the acclimation of oppressed people in a foreign land.

His name is Gerald Brown, 57, and for the better part of three decades, he has been working with refugees in locations such as New York City and Houston before arriving in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Now, as the Director of Refugee Services, in the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Brown is under constant pressure from the weight of two separate worlds. He must keep his budget in line, because he is a government employee. And he must also keep the refugees he helps happy, healthy and in tune, because he knows they are the ones who can get lost in the shuffle.

“We provide eight months of Medical service and cash assistance for those who qualify,” Brown said with a hint of empathy, ” the problem with Utah is a lot of time there is no one to look after them after that.”

Brown began his work with refugees in Houston for four years, then continued his work in the melting pot that is New York City. He understands that it was a good place, if not the most mundane, to earn his stripes. He was thrown into the middle of the daily struggle that is resettlement with a group of Cambodian refugees.

“Once I began to learn to communicate with them I could plant a seed,” Brown said, “and once the seed is planted, it can be enforced to the nth degree.”

He ran a resettlement house for 10 years in New York, and that led him to a job as a political asylum officer in Kansas in 1998. (Political asylum differs from refugee status, only because asylum deals exclusively with political conflict and oppression. A refugee is oppressed from any and all angles.)

After Kansas, Brown moved to Salt Lake to bolster the resettlement program, before ending up with the Utah Department of Workforce Services

“When I came here, we had one guy in a cubicle, now we have six,” Brown said with a grin. And his grin is genuine, because when he works with such a limited, but demanding, clientele, he needs all the sure handed help he can get.

Now he has a volunteer training program in place, and help, at least with a face, has arrived. His caseworkers are now fully trained, and now they can manage each responsibly and compassionately. The training program is essential, Brown said, especially when handling home visits with refugees.

“Volunteers untrained can cause more trouble they help most of the time,” Brown said. Which is why his case workers are equipped not only to handle face to face interaction with their clients, but the behind the scenes business as well.

Those volunteers have now taken on a heavy load of individual cases. The case management process requires the caseworkers to be fully versed in the refugees’ rights; otherwise a lot of necessary services are not readily available. It is Brown’s job to make sure his workers can access those services.

Brown understands that he is fighting an uphill battle, but the battle far from over. He has reached members of the Salt Lake community indirectly, which is a testament to his influence. Some do not even know who to see when they first arrive.

“My family never knew where to go, and I am still the only English speaking member of my family,” said Sean Keranovic, a Salt Lake Community College student originally from Prijedor, Bosnia. “Our neighbors got in touch with a case worker back in 2002, and their transition has been made much easier. No late bills, no missed school, and very little confusion.”

So while Brown deals with his 11-year-old son (“He wants to be a journalist,” Brown said with a chuckle) and his family life, he is always making sure that no case is left untouched.

Society has the propensity to complicate things, and complication can often bury the unprepared. Gerald Brown deals with people who have had few choices in life, and makes sure they don’t slip all the way through the cracks. And despite the long hours, he still manages to keep a broad smile on his face.

“Man, I’ve had the privilege to know the world,” Brown said, with the same smile adorning his face, directed more to himself than anyone in particular. “To learn [about people from other countries] is like another college degree free of charge. Cool.”

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