By: Michelle Borrego, Volunteer and Donations Coordinator, IRC San Jose
Creation and Implementation:
IRC San Jose’s newest initiative, the B.R.I.D.G.E. Youth Mentorship program, has just hit its 10-month mark! This exciting new program focused on supporting the integration and social, educational, and vocational pursuits of refugee youth has been a long-time dream of the San Jose office. With the extensive efforts of numerous staff members we succeeded in securing funding and implementing this program within the last year. Upon the official start of the program, Career Development Coordinator Kevin Davis and Youth Coach Andrea Vidal spearheaded the creation of materials and began extensive outreach efforts for participants while Volunteer and Donations Coordinator Michelle Borrego began recruitment for mentors.
Initial outreach efforts netted joyous reconnections with former clients as enrollment in the program is open to arrivals within their first 5 years in the U.S. Youth qualified for the program were excited at the prospect of having a mentor work with them individually. The Youth Mentor volunteer opportunity elicited excitement from community members interested in making a meaningful impact in a young refugee’s life. Full-time employees and other busy individuals reveled at the opportunity to give back without needing to compromise their usual responsibilities as the Youth Mentor volunteer opportunity is one of a few volunteer opportunities with a commitment that can be filled outside of typical business hours.
After a busy first month of prep work, the pairings and events began! To foster a strong network among the participants, Andrea and Kevin facilitated their attendance to a Sports Day event hosted by an ambitious Eagle Scout named Ibrahim Mansour and his troop who were determined to help refugees feel integrated and supported with their transportation barriers by fundraising for bike donations. The event was a success. The pairings were a success. All was going well, but a challenge was manifesting in the distance.
COVID-19 and Our Response:
With the onset of an unprecedented pandemic six months into the program, the team quickly had to reimagine the B.R.I.D.G.E Youth Mentorship Program. Social distancing seemed contradictory to the very core of the program – community connection. Shelter in place orders were instituted in our community forcing millions out of their usual routines, including IRC beneficiaries. The Youth program participants were hit especially hard as many could no longer attend their in-person educational pursuits, and compounded with that, many lost their jobs or experienced a drastic reduction in hours. Most U.S. citizens were unprepared for a pandemic, but recently arrived refugees were exponentially negatively impacted as most of them were barely getting their footing in their new community.
Fear not! IRC and our supporters exhibited great flexibility and dedication in supporting the IRC community. Immediate efforts by staff, mentors, and other volunteers were made to solicit and distribute laptops and tablets to IRC beneficiaries so they could maintain access to information and necessary support. Meetings moved to platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, Whatsapp, and TEAMS to promote health and safety via social distancing efforts. A rigorous fundraising and distribution campaign for gift cards and cash donations was launched to assist IRC beneficiaries with food insecurity and financial shortfalls for basic essentials, such as rent payments.
Youth Mentors went above and beyond in assuring their mentees and their mentees’ families had someone to look out for them. IRC has experienced a wave of interest from new mentors who want to support the Bay Area community, and its newest members, during this tumultuous time. With the growth in community support, mentees have spent a shorter time waiting for a mentor than at the beginning of the program and now have access to greater amounts of cash assistance and technology to meet their basic needs.
As we have settled into this new normal, we’ve experienced growth in both program enrollments and mentor interest. When asked what the most valuable lesson learned from volunteering with IRC was, Mentor David answered, “Mentoring and volunteering at the IRC gave me first-hand and personal understanding of a few individuals' experience. It let me have a tangible positive impact on people who I know needed help. And, for me, the opportunity to help others in need is a path to helping myself feel better about my place in the world. It is a virtuous circle.” We couldn’t agree more, David!
As we continue this program we will continue to positively impact lives, both of our mentees and our mentors, so we can continue to cultivate the welcoming community that is the Bay Area.
For questions about mentoring or volunteering, please email VolunteerSJ [at] rescue.org
For participant referrals to the program, please email Andrea.Vidal [at] rescue.org or Renna.Bazlen [at] rescue.org