In October of 2010, CFC’s Refugee Volunteer Administrator, Debbie Lanceri, met with Carroll Wetherby, a history teacher at Gates-Chili High School and proposed a unique collaboration — students helping resettle refugee families in the Rochester area through a new Refugee Resettlement Service Learning Program. Ms. Wetherby was fully on board, and began proposing the assignment to her students. This would be the first time in CFC’s history that high school students would work together to resettle a refugee family.
Karyn Ehmann, a 17-year-old Gates-Chili student, thought the resettlement project would be fun and she needed the volunteer hours, so she signed up for the assignment. Little did she know that in six short months, her whole world view would be shaken.
Karyn and five other students were paired with a refugee family from the Congo. Prior to coming to America, the family had spent time in a refugee camp in Rwanda. The family consists of a single mother, Odette, and her five children — Emmanuel, 18; Sifa, 15; Deo, 11; Solange, 9; and Masengesho, 7.
Karyn and the other students began working with the family to learn English through a variety of methods — flashcards, American television, homework and singing. Before long, the children started picking up the English language and adapting to their new surroundings. The students even taught the family how to use a computer, email and get a library card. Karyn also worked to get Emmanuel a job with her at Five Guys Restaurant in Henrietta where he now works for a reasonable wage and provides for his family.
Coming to America has been a culture shock for the family, but it has also been an adjustment for Karyn as well. “I was raised in the suburbs and somewhat sheltered, so it has been very different for me. I’ve seen a family of six live in a three bedroom apartment on a lot less than what I have, and they are still so happy.”
Karyn says the refugee family finds happiness in the smallest of things — doing homework, playing jump rope outside and having privacy without the military all around.
“They don’t really like the snow, but they said they are excited to see what the trees look like when the leaves come in,” says Karyn. Emmanuel, the 18-year-old, is even looking forward to driving lessons this summer.
Not only did the students teach the family English and spend time with them, but they also went above and beyond in their project and shared Thanksgiving and Christmas together. Gates-Chili High School donated the food for the celebrations, and toys and clothing were donated as well. Karyn even took the children to the Strong Museum of Play and the Rochester Public Market.
“Giving back makes our group feel so happy,” says Karyn. “Going through this experience has made me want to save my money more and live more peacefully. I’ve definitely learned that you can live without the necessities and still be OK.”