Volunteer Spotlight: Marimer

A typical day at Catherine McAuley Center for Marimer, who is our RefugeeRISE Education Coordinator – is anything but typical.  “My desk is located at the front of the building,” Marimer says, “so I try to give a warm welcome to people and help them. When I am not doing this, I am working on projects like visual media, drawings, posters, giving ideas for handouts, researching and tracking statistics and more.”  Marimer has a creative side that she is able to express by working on big art projects at the Center, such as a mural for the community room and creating graphics for curriculum materials.  She also gives art therapy classes every two weeks and attends meetings with clients who are in need of a translator (she is a native Spanish speaker).

As an immigrant to the United States and native of Mexico City, Marimer discovered the Catherine McAuley Center when she was looking for help in preparing to take the American citizenship test.  She studied citizenship for ten months and passed the test with flying colors!  Soon after that, CMC asked Marimer if she would like to become a tutor.  When the pandemic started Marimer was forced to stop teaching.  She saw the panic and need for masks among communities and so Marimer decided to make them (over 800 masks!!) and give them away to the local community here as well as other states such as New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia, and California.  Some of her masks made it to her native Mexico as well!

As a result of her active role at the Center, Marimer was asked to join CMC as part of AmeriCorps and quickly said yes.  She also helped promote the COVID-19 vaccine here in our community by making videos in Spanish to encourage the Hispanic community to get vaccinated.  “I always try to find a way to help my community,” says Marimer.  She says she has gained a lot from the experience at CMC but most importantly – self-confidence in herself and her communication skills.  Since English is not her first language, it has helped her build language and other skills when helping people find the resources they need.  Art is another avenue Marimer uses to contribute her time and talent.

Marimer has applied for a second term with AmeriCorps because she still feels she has much left to do.  She wants to make a greater impact on the people she helps and keep learning.    Marimer is gratified by the outcome of her efforts so far and excited to be able to continue to make a contribution.  All the things Marimer is a part of have a common theme:  helping others.

Volunteer Spotlight: Umoja Wamama Africa

For Regina, helping other women and building community is nothing new.  The native of Congo has been helping women in varying capacities since 2003.  It was at that time, while living in a refugee camp, that she and a few other women from Congo decided to take the initiative to improve women’s livelihoods by teaching and enhancing life skills that improve their income generating ability, thereby fighting against poverty and hunger.  They were successful in helping women begin saving cash and eventually, due to the positive response, they procured funding from the Catholic church.

With that successful experience, Regina arrived July of 2017, in Cedar Rapids, with her husband and three children.  CMC resettled her family, and Regina was in communication with her case manager regularly.  About eight months after resettlement, Regina noticed there were some challenges to maintaining the same cultural values as they had in their native land.  She noticed the language and transportation barriers, for instance, and decided she wanted to bring women together so they could help one another.  “When we know each other, we can help each other,” says Regina.  As a way of helping out and forming community, a few of the women met and decided to form an initiative called “Umoja Wamama Africa”, which would enhance the refugee experience by offering:

  • Assistance to new arrivals
  • Promoting peace and unity within family and community
  • Provide family and youth counseling
  • Education

As a result of this initiative, Regina has helped welcome 10 families to the Cedar Rapids area.  Her group’s activities include meeting families at the airport, preparing and sharing a welcome meal with new arrivals at their respective homes, providing guidance on how and where to buy or get basic needs/services, and helping with interpretation.

With this structure in place, it was only natural that when the derecho happened last August, Regina would offer to cook meals. She and a group of Congolese women fed 80 adults and children for 6 days immediately following the disaster, and continued providing lunches to 35 refugee youth attending remote classes at the Catherine McAuley Center.  The group’s hard work helped to provide culturally appropriate meals to refugee youth so they could learn on-site at CMC, receiving support from staff.

Regina is proud of what the group has accomplished, but continues to set her sights on expanding their services, both locally and abroad.  CMC is proud to partner with Umoja Wamama Africa to provide culturally appropriate welcomes for new arrivals.  Thanks to these women for all they do for the local refugee community!

Volunteer spotlight: YOU

Here at the Catherine McAuley Center, we’ve seen an outpouring of volunteer support over the past year, and in many creative ways from tutoring online, holding supply drives, assembling and delivering food boxes, to cleaning the new building and helping the Center move into its new home.  When the derecho hit in August, “The work after the storm really inspired people to step up,” says Katie Splean, Volunteer & Outreach Manager at CMC. Volunteers helped flip our old building and turned it into a shelter for displaced refugee and immigrant families, and we received an outpouring of support through donations from our community.  These basic necessities provided stability for families experiencing crisis, and are continuing to provide ongoing supportive services as we navigate the aftermath of this disaster.

In virtual “tutor talks” this year, volunteers asked questions about how they could be advocates for the populations we serve, and volunteers helped get people to the polls to vote.  More than 200 food boxes were assembled and delivered to refugee and immigrant families experiencing food insecurity.  These are just a few of the ways that you have inspired and helped the community this past year!

“It’s clear that the community is engaged and wanting to help”.  Katie says that community interest has been high since the derecho.  In fact, since July 1st of 2020, volunteers have donated more than 8,000 hours of their time, and 158 have been new to CMC.  This is incredible, given the current pandemic!

In the future, we look forward to seeing more of both new and long-time volunteers around CMC.  “Vaccines are rolling out and we’re looking forward to welcoming people into our building when they feel comfortable,” adds Katie.

April 18 -24 is National Volunteer week, so we could think of no better way to say “thank you,” than to feature all those who have helped us in the last year.

Thanks for all you do to make Cedar Rapids a welcoming community!

 

 

 

 

 

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.”