A service project at Neuse Christian Academy helps local refugees

sbarr@newsobserver.comAugust 18, 2013 

— A service project by a group of middle school students at Neuse Christian Academy has grown into a yearlong effort to help members of a local refugee community do everything from learn English to find jobs.

This summer, a group of Karen teenagers from Raleigh began participating in a weekly class that focuses on learning English and building skills for navigating life in the U.S., offering tips on tasks such as getting a driver’s license or opening a bank account.

The seeds of the class were planted last spring, when Neuse Christian participated in a clothing and supply drive to help a group of local Karen families.

The Karen people are an ethnic minority in Burma who have endured human rights abuses by the government there. Many have fled to refugee camps near the border shared with Thailand, and some have been granted asylum in the U.S., settling with few resources in cities around the country.

As they participated in the drive, a few Neuse students decided they wanted to make an even bigger difference in the lives of their neighbors.

“We realized we could give back to them and give them something so that they can enjoy life,” said Braden Teller, who will be in ninth grade this fall.

After researching and thinking about what would most help the Karen, the group – called the Student Advance Team – decided to hold a job fair.

The students invited employers, prepared information packets to share with job seekers and came up with activities to entertain children who had accompanied their parents to the fair.

Since then, eight members of the Karen community have found jobs through the fair or the network of interested employers it helped create.

Martin Shank, who also will enter ninth grade this fall, said the experience has been inspiring, especially when he considers how much the families he’s worked with have overcome.

“It really puts things in perspective,” he said.

Kayla Cook, a rising eighth-grader, and Grace Black, a seventh-grader, also were members of the group.

A boost from Belk

Once the job fair was over, the students at Neuse Christian were in for a surprise. They won first place in the North Carolina division of the Belk Service Learning Challenge, a competition that encourages students to identify a community issue and then enact a plan to change things for the better. More than 80 teams from the Carolinas and Mississippi had entered. (Team Farm Swarm from Ligon Middle School in Raleigh was the second-place state winner for a project that offered young girls a day of self-esteem and friendship-building activities.)

The award included a $10,000 grant that got the English and life skills class off the ground.

Les Burleson, a middle school teacher at Neuse Christian, said the project is an example of what can happen when students are given the space to dream big about ways they can help their community.

Say K’Pru Htoo, 17, is a student in the class. She has lived in the U.S. for nearly six years, and her English is strong. But she is hoping to get even better and to learn skills that she can share with her family and the larger Karen community.

Her parents always have stressed the value of education – and taking the class is one way to live up to that message.

“I want to be able to learn more,” she said.

Stacy Chandler contributed to this story.

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