Volunteer Spotlight: AmeriCorps Members

This month’s volunteer spotlight is on AmeriCorps members, who have been an integral part of the Catherine McAuley Center’s expanded capacity in recent years. AmeriCorps is a voluntary civil service program under the Corporation for National and Community Service in which members serve limited terms and receive a living stipend.  Currently, CMC has seven full time AmeriCorps members serving through the RefugeeRISE and VISTA programs, who help to build and refine processes, allowing us to better serve the community.  In honor of National AmeriCorps Week (March 7-13), we asked a few questions of members Evelyn Berryhill, Kelly Johnson and Walt Wagner-Hecht about their experience of serving at CMC.

Evelyn works with students and tutors adapting to remote learning

What is your role, and what do you do?       

Kelly: My role is as the Donations and Volunteer Coordinator. My main goals are to properly set an inventory and organizational system for in-kind donations and help establish a group of volunteers for the Refugee & Immigrant Services department.

Walt:  I am an Educational Services VISTA. I help expand our curriculum beyond one-on-one tutoring and connect students to tutors and resources.

Evelyn:  I’m the Distance Learning Coach for Education Services. My primary focus is supporting the online tutoring program that was implemented in mid-2020. I help tutors learn to use Zoom and similar platforms for tutoring, connect them with online students, and assist tutors and students in solving online learning issues they may encounter.

What made you decide to participate in an AmeriCorps term of service?

Kelly: With the outbreak of COVID-19, I decided to put my graduate studies on hold for a year and was looking for an opportunity to continue growing my experience in the public/nonprofit sector. I saw the AmeriCorps place at CMC and jumped at the chance!

Walt:  I decided to participate in this AmeriCorps term because it was a way to help the community during the pandemic. I had graduated college but was mostly just sitting at home trying to find jobs that I could do, were helpful, and didn’t require me moving during such a strange time.

Kelly works with donations and volunteers for Refugee & Immigrant Services

What does a typical day in your role look like?

Kelly: Usually in the morning, I begin by trying to check messages (I also have receptionist duties). Then depending on what is happening I will help get incoming volunteers into their roles. The rest of the day can be a mix of getting paperwork or appointments sorted for incoming clients or working on various other projects such as helping our after-school program with middle school and high school students.

Walt: I have had very few typical days during my service so far. The constantly changing status of the pandemic as well as a derecho during my second week have meant that I have shifted between working at the building and from home often, and various projects have stopped and started up again. I am on the computer quite a bit, working on spreadsheets, lesson plans, and Zoom/Google Meet meetings.

Evelyn:  On any given day, I teach English online and work on curriculum projects (AKA, lesson planning). I also connect students with tutors for online classes, and I field a lot of questions from tutors about the best ways to tutor online. This happens either by email or on Zoom during our office hours. Additionally, I keep track of how often students and tutors are studying together online.

What have you gained so far from this experience?

Kelly: I have gained a wealth of experience in understanding more about the journey a refugee takes to come to the US, and that will help me in my future goals of working in international development. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the wonderful friendships and opportunities to connect with a wide variety of people!

Walt:  So far during this experience I have gained a greater awareness of the diversity of people in our community, a better understanding of how education can work, and experience working with a team.

Evelyn: I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the education field than I ever expected to, by teaching and tutoring, and learning how curriculum is developed. I’ve had hands-on experience managing and creating education programs and gained a greater sense of community in Cedar Rapids by getting to know staff members at CMC as well as the students and other volunteers.

Walt builds curriculum for Education Services

What are you planning to do after you finish your AmeriCorps service – any long-term goals?

Kelly: Hopefully, I will begin my graduate studies and receive a Master of Public Administration degree.  I love to travel and study languages, so my long-term goals are to grow my knowledge of public policy and public management so that I can work in international development, ideally abroad and possibly with refugees.

Walt:  It is hard to tell what comes next since I don’t know when different things will be possible again. I may go to graduate school, do another year of service, or find another job.  My long-term goals are to help create sustainable and welcoming communities and reform the systems that make that difficult currently.

Evelyn:   I plan to earn a graduate degree in a field that will help me to improve other people’s lives. There are so many people, including immigrants, refugees, and linguistically and culturally diverse individuals, who are structurally disadvantaged in U.S. society by no fault of their own. I want to work towards dismantling these unjust structures while also helping people gain the tools and opportunities to do this work themselves. I believe education (for myself, as well as others) is one of the best ways to do so.

CMC is seeking qualified and passionate applicants for upcoming summer and fall (year-long) opportunities.  Visit our careers page at www.cmc-cr.org/contact/careers/ or email volunteer@cmc-cr.org to learn more!

 

 

 

 

Volunteer Spotlight: Harry & Stephanie

Harry and Stephanie Phillips may have only been volunteering for a few years with the Catherine McAuley Center, but they have over sixty years of combined experience as teachers.  Stephanie taught elementary and secondary schools in Iowa City and specialized in English as a Second Language (ESL) for new students arriving from other countries.  Eventually, Stephanie went on to become a principal in the school district. “I taught secondary language arts,” says Harry.  “For the last 13 years of my 32 years in education I taught a year-long course in writing and expressive language, a requirement for all 7th graders in the Iowa City schools.”

After retiring, the couple were looking for opportunities to volunteer, when Stephanie saw an advertisement in the local paper.  The tutoring role and their background with teaching English seemed a logical choice.  “We always enjoyed our work, enjoyed our interactions and learned so much about our world from the students we taught.  We’ve known for a long time about the good work done by the Catherine McAuley Center, so it just seemed to fit.”

Harry and Stephanie find it satisfying when they can help a person from a foreign culture navigate complicated systems or help them find necessities.  They have helped students with everything from writing a resume, to understanding daycare policies, to buying a car or navigating the internet.  They find each session memorable in small ways and view education as a reciprocal agreement – they teach, but they learn from their students as well.  “Without exception, the students we have worked with have been grateful and kind and I feel we learn as much in a session as they do,” Harry says.

Although they haven’t been able to meet with students in person due to the pandemic, Harry and Stephanie look forward to being able to volunteer in the spacious new facility.  And they encourage others to give it a try.  From their perspective, with things being so polarized – it’s always a good thing to meet people from around the globe.  It helps develop common understandings – and that’s something we could all use a little more of.

 

Volunteer Spotlight: Michelle

We would like to take this opportunity to welcome Michelle, a CMC volunteer who will be taking on the role of writing our monthly Volunteer Spotlights going forward! Michelle has been involved at the Catherine McAuley Center for close to two years, primarily helping with the food pantry and the lengthy process of moving into our new building this past year.

“For the last year or so, I have mainly been transporting food from HACAP to the CMC building to stock the food pantry, but that was put on hold due to COVID earlier this year,” Michelle said. “I enjoy having a chance to interact with the staff, and I helped during the move to the new facility by power washing the building, washing windows and cleaning the kitchen.”

Michelle initially became familiar with the Catherine McAuley Center when she wrote an article about it around the time of its founding in 1989. “I first heard of CMC back in 1989, when they first opened,” Michelle explained, “I wrote an article about the Center for a local publication called Today’s Woman. Joyce Klimek was the Director at the time, and it made the front page of the paper.”  (You can view the original story here!)

Years later, when Michelle’s schedule had more flexibility for volunteering, and she was looking for a way to get involved in her community, the Catherine McAuley Center came to mind.

“I was drawn to CMC for several reasons – the first is because of their association with the Sisters of Mercy, and the fact that the organization is named after the Sisters’ founder, Catherine McAuley,” Michelle said, “I was also drawn to it because of my prior experience writing about the Center when it opened and because the mission of helping women resonates deeply with me.”

Michelle has developed a unique perspective after seeing CMC move from the original location on 10th St SE to our second location at 4th Ave SE, and now to our current location, which is the largest yet. She has witnessed the growth and the consistent dedication of CMC staff to their mission and vision of an inclusive community that serves those who need it most.

Michelle’s writing skills paired with her involvement with the Center and long-time understanding of CMC’s history, mission, and work in Eastern Iowa made her a natural fit to approach when staff were exploring a new volunteer need.

Through volunteering, Michelle enjoys meeting people who are like-minded and service-oriented, and it gives her a chance to focus on caring for others’ needs. In her new role, Michelle looks forward to getting to know more of CMC’s volunteer community. She says “taking on this new responsibility will certainly be a memorable highlight” of her service.

Volunteer Spotlight: Russell

For this month’s feature, we’d like to introduce Russell, who was the first new volunteer to join our purely-virtual tutoring program in the midst of COVID-19. Early on in the pandemic, Russell was looking for volunteer opportunities, so he decided to write a post on Facebook. “I like to give back to my community,” he says. From the post on Facebook, he received a comment from a staff member about the Catherine McAuley Center. Russell had heard of the organization from his wife and was familiar with the name. He was aware that it was a women’s center helping those who were homeless or needing shelter from domestic abuse, but he was not aware of the Center’s tutoring program. Now, Russell has been paying it forward since July by tutoring a client in English once a week.

Man and woman look at textbookRussell’s heart for serving his community stems back many years, to when he was on disability, and relied on help from community food banks to support his family.  He has volunteered with educational programs in the past, reading to first graders at Prairie.  With that experience, he enjoyed feeling like a grandfather figure to the children. He enjoys helping others learn, and tutoring through the Catherine McAuley Center has given him the chance to do just that.

Russell attends tutor meetings, which he says have been helpful, and there are also “office hours,” twice a week, where tutors meet to discuss different topics and create a supportive team. He says it has been helpful to hear from the staff as to what they expect from a tutor in the role, since he has never tutored before. Russell takes the responsibility seriously and wants to do his best. The tutoring program is a series of four books – his client is on book three. He has seen significant progress. Although the tutoring takes place through Zoom meetings right now, it still has been a positive experience, and a meaningful way to connect with the community.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflection – Communications and Outreach AmeriCorps VISTA Year 2

After spending the better part of a year writing about volunteers, coworkers, community members, and clients at the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC), it feels a little strange to sit down and write about myself. I applied for the Communications and Outreach VISTA position last November without much direction – I had a college degree, a tougher job market than I had hoped for, and the notion that I didn’t belong in corporate America. More specifically, I wanted to explore the communications field while working with an organization that was doing good in Eastern Iowa. By those standards, this VISTA position would give me exactly what I was looking for. Now that I’m less than two weeks away from completing my term, I can wholeheartedly confirm that it did. 

It has been a strange and challenging year. My plans – and I think I can safely speak for all my fellow CMC coworkers here as well – did not include an international pandemic and a derecho, not to mention the myriad of issues they brought with them (months of additional construction on our new Center, a lack of stable housing, and food insecurity throughout the community, just to name a few). Although at times I felt like I was trying to finish a bowl of soup with a fork, I’ve had unexpected crash courses in resilience, flexibility, and selflessness. I’ve seen these traits at work in the clients we serve at the Catherine McAuley Center, in my coworkers, and in the Cedar Rapids community. I sincerely hope that I carry these lessons with me into whatever I do next. 

Serving with the Catherine McAuley Center has offered me much more than the basic day-to-day communications tasks that I expected when I sent in my application – taking part in a long-awaited move, having a hand in the formation of an advocacy committee (sign up for our advocacy e-newsletter here!), coordinating a virtual celebration of World Refugee Day, weeks worth of all hands on deck recovery efforts, organizing voter transportation for the first time. These have all been valuable and often humbling experiences. I could tell after a tour of the building on my first day that I was going to be surrounded by a service-oriented team that was dedicated to making a difference in the lives of their clients. 

While the plans for this next year of my life are still up in the air, I’m deeply thankful to all the people that I’ve had the chance to work with here in Cedar Rapids. I look forward to spreading the word about the Catherine McAuley Center’s impact in Eastern Iowa, and I certainly hope to come back to see it again for myself when the time is right.

Although my term will end on December 7th, CMC will be welcoming a new Communications and Outreach VISTA in January to build on everything accomplished so far! Learn more and apply on our Careers page.

Garrett Frambach

A Statement on the Election from Education Services

Written by CMC Director of Education Services, Anne Dugger 

On Wednesday, November 5, the Education team hosted two tutor talks with the intention of focusing our work, no matter the results of this newest election. Our intent was to talk with our volunteer tutors about the work we will continue to do to help our students (and our tutors!) continue their learning. We were heartened to have tutors come to these talks and steer the conversation towards our ongoing commitment to the CMC mission and values. We certainly talked some politics, but with the understanding that we wanted to look forward as we navigate divisions within our own families and communities.

Despite our plans to dive into discussion on current events, the talk on Wednesday morning immediately began with a question about explaining present perfect tense! I was personally delighted to think about something that seems small but that created a space for all of us to think of our students and one of our favorite subjects – grammar! As we were talking, one of the participants expressed the idea that answering these questions about English grammar, cultural differences, and yes, the election, felt as important as our civic duty of voting. I realized we have all been focused for a very long time on this election and on making our voices heard, one side or the other. To have a chance to recognize the work we do each week with students as being just as important as the election renewed my own sense of focus and purpose to continue to help everyone in the CMC community reach towards progress and learning.

We have work to do. That work is important in the ways that voting is important – being a part of the community around us is a civic duty. It is a right we enjoy. It is a responsibility to our brothers and sisters around us. The work we do, as is stated in the CMC mission statement is “to offer hope and opportunity through educational and supportive services.” Every tutoring session, every hand reached out in service to others, every “small question” creates a mountain of moments that are significant. We can move forward, and we can progress if we continue to do our community-building work: not only voting, but answering grammar questions and connecting culturally. We don’t need an election to determine our focus or our commitment; we need each other – our staff, our students, our clients, our residents, and our volunteers. We create lasting changes as long as we continue our commitment to our community.

To help us continue our work, join our tutor orientations every first Thursday or Friday of the month. You can sign up at www.cmc-cr.org. We look forward to meeting you!

Volunteer Spotlight: Don

This October we introduce you to Don Chizek, a volunteer for the past two years who has gotten more and more involved with the Catherine McAuley Center through our capital campaign and the move into our new building this past summer. Don, whose professional role is Vice President of Operations at Lil’ Drug Store Products, has also recently joined our board of directors!

“I have known about CMC for many years, but got more involved when Michele Brock (Place of Welcome Campaign steering committee member) called me and discussed the organization, its purpose and that CMC was looking to find a new home,” Don said, discussing his first involvement with the Center, “I signed on to be a volunteer for the capital campaign and the more I have learned about the organization, it is essential for our community.”

Don joined us at a pivotal time for CMC, as we were well into the process of relocating and expanding our services. 

“I have seen a lot of passion for the purpose of the organization and the focus on getting to the new location,” Don added, speaking to his impression of CMC over the past two years, “It has been fun to watch the passion that everyone has.”

Like many of our volunteers, Don has highlights from his volunteer experiences, but he is just as excited about his future with CMC as he is about past engagements. Working on the capital campaign has offered a unique perspective on the Center and its many partnerships and supporters in our Eastern Iowa community. 

“I am proud to be working on the capital campaign,” Don said,  “The many companies and individuals that I have had the chance to engage with and talk about CMC have been great. Everyone has really been passionate about ensuring that CMC’s future is bright. I am looking forward, as a new member of the board of directors, to assist in building the future of the organization.”

Statement on Reduction in Refugee Admissions

Written by Caleb Gates, Advocacy Specialist and Refugee Case Manager 

The principles of “we the people”, and “liberty and justice for all” enshrined in our founding documents have long beckoned refugees (people forced to flee their country because they fear persecution for who they are or what they believe) yearning to breathe free to come and make the United States their home. These families and individuals desire peace, work, a new life, and a chance for a country to call their own, to which they can contribute. For the past 40 years, the United States has provided many refugees a chance to fill these needs, needs that all of us born in this country share.

Under Republican Governor Robert Ray, the state of Iowa was the first state in the U.S. to welcome refugees. Prior to the current administration, the U.S. accepted an average of 81,000 refugees per year. Under President Ronald Reagan, refugee arrivals reached as high as 207,000 per year. President Reagan promised that we would continue the American tradition of “welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression” and warned that if we ever close our door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.

The current administration has rejected our country’s proud tradition of welcoming refugees. Under current law, the President issues a determination of the upper limit for the number of refugees allowed to come into the country for that year. The law states that the President shall make this determination before October 1 of each year after consulting with Congress. This year, as in previous years, the President failed to consult with Congress on this decision, in violation of the law. The current administration will only allow up to 15,000 refugees to arrive in the U.S. this year, the lowest number since the beginning of the refugee admissions program 40 years ago. These reductions come when the number of refugees throughout the world is higher now than at any time since World War 2.

Furthermore, the current administration has made it practically impossible for those fleeing violence and persecution to apply for asylum. We condemn the onerous reductions in refugee admissions by our current administration. We urge the federal government to follow the examples of Iowa Governor Robert Ray and President Ronald Reagan and once again make America a beacon of welcome for refugees.

COVID-19 Recommendations for Employers

Written by Sarah Diner, Employment Services Coordinator 

We have heard from our refugee and immigrant clients that they have experienced a great deal of uncertainty, confusing information, and stress during this pandemic, particularly as it relates to maintaining or finding new employment. At the Catherine McAuley Center, we want to see our clients find work that allows their families to be self-sufficient, as well as support Iowa employers, who have faced challenges meeting their workforce needs in recent years, in making their hiring and training practices accessible to immigrants and refugees. That hope remains through this pandemic!

It has been shown that minority communities have been hit the hardest by the virus and the subsequent impacts on family stability. For data on how COVID-19 has affected minority households, take a look at The Urban Institute’s weekly update on COVID-19’s Effects by Race and Ethnicity. The closing of schools and other child care facilities has particularly impacted our clients’ abilities to go to work because many of them are essential workers and rely on these public support systems to keep up with their responsibilities. Many of CMC’s clients have come to the United States as refugees or asylum seekers, meaning they fled their home countries due to a legitimate fear for their life or their safety, and have been granted safety within our country in order to start a new chapter in their lives. Refugee and asylum clients who arrived just as the pandemic was taking over have been unable to receive Social Security Cards due to the closure of the offices, preventing them from attaining employment since they can’t be hired on at a company without their Social Security numbers. All these families want to do is be able to provide for themselves and create a sense of security after going through years of instability in their home countries and refugee camps.

Many of the employers we work with are in the food processing and manufacturing industries with others spread within the custodial and housekeeping departments throughout the healthcare and hospitality fields. The clients we see are proud of their jobs with these employers and eager to continue working, while also making sure they are staying safe and following company and national guidelines. The trouble they are facing is difficulties communicating and understanding their employers’ specific guidelines due to existing language barriers. In order to overcome this, it is key for employers to release patient, clear, accessible communication that avoids complex, technical language about topics like:

  • paid leave or pay during a company shut down, 
  • employees’ level of exposure to coronavirus, 
  • new safety measures that the company may be implementing, 
  • protocols for informing the company of an exposure or positive test

This format in communication can help halt rumors in the workplace and helps non-English-speaking populations make informed decisions about their health and safety. Not only does taking proper safety precautions and communicating clearly recognize the dignity of workers, but we believe will also support employers in retaining their workforce.

CMC has already worked with employers across several industries in Eastern Iowa to provide guidance on how to overcome language barriers and make hiring and training accessible, and has created some videos about COVID-19 safety in multiple languages that are available on our Youtube channel.

We would love to continue supporting employers on their quest to ensure full understanding throughout the company by providing guidance on navigating communication on issues specific to their workplace so our immigrant and refugee neighbors can stay safe and healthy. If you are interested in how we can help support your company, feel free to reach out to CMC staff.

Contact: sarahb@cmc-cr.org 

 

Welcoming Week – Vinh and Bill’s Story

As we begin to celebrate Welcoming Week, we couldn’t think of a better way to exemplify the welcoming spirit of Eastern Iowa than to share the stories and successes of those who have felt it personally. The Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) has had the privilege of not only getting to know Vinh Nguyen and his family, but to also watch them build relationships through the Center, thrive in their careers, and make Cedar Rapids their home. 

Vinh and his wife, Linh, moved to Cedar Rapids with their two young children in August of 2007, when Vinh accepted a teaching position at Coe College. Linh spoke very little English, and the couple had few connections to the area outside of Vinh’s new colleagues. Fortunately, the welcoming spirit of Cedar Rapids showed itself quickly. One of Vinh’s colleagues at Coe introduced them to the Catherine McAuley Center, where Linh soon began to take English classes and work towards her own career goals. 

Vinh and Linh Nguyen at the 2019 Annual Family Picnic at Bever Park with former board president Max Smith and his wife, Kathy. The picnic is an event where students, residents, clients, volunteers, and donors gather together to celebrate the welcoming community at CMC.

Two of the most important relationships that the Nguyens formed through CMC, both personally and professionally, were Bill and Merilee Rosberg. “I met Merilee and Bill when I started learning English at CMC and Merilee was my weekly teacher,” Linh said, elaborating on her early involvement with the Catherine McAuley Center, “They taught me not only English but also many things, especially the American culture, to help me adjust and integrate into a new country. They also supported me to return to Mount Mercy University to get my MBA degree.” 

After working as a finance coordinator for the Arc of East Central Iowa for five years, Linh accepted a position as a staff accountant at Coe College, where she works currently. Vinh has continued his career at Coe College while also becoming more and more involved at the Catherine McAuley Center. “Two years ago I was invited to serve as a board member and I agreed to do it”, Vinh said,  “As a board member I attend regular meetings to discuss, monitor, and vote to approve major plans and activities at CMC. I also serve as a member of the Education Advisory Committee.”

While Bill and Merilee offered the Nguyens a great deal of guidance in regards to their careers and community involvement, their personal relationship seems to shine above all else. “My family has been so grateful for all of their love and support over many years. It is so sad that Merilee passed away unexpectedly last year. We lost one of the best people in our life.”

Bill and Merilee in a CMC study room in 2016, with one of their many students.

The relationship between the Nguyen and Rosberg families demonstrates the  kindness, friendship, and welcoming spirit that exists within our community. It should serve as an example to all that when we work towards building a compassionate and inclusive community, everyone benefits.

“My colleagues at Coe and my friends in Cedar Rapids have helped me go through challenges and achieve a successful and happy life,” Vinh said, “It was very difficult at that time for Linh to learn English while taking care of two little children, but CMC provided flexible schedules so that she could keep learning. For us, Cedar Rapids has become our home, and we are so thankful for all people we have met, and especially for Bill and Merilee who have supported us with unconditional love.”