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Center helps refugee, immigrant families realize potential

MILLCREEK — Ellie Goldberg is making the most of a teaching moment.

Abuok Geiang, 8, thinks she's just drawing a clock on butcher paper to make scenery for a play. But Goldberg is also sneaking in a lesson in telling time.

"If it's 12 o'clock, where does the other hand go?" Goldberg asks.

The girl correctly points to 12, and Goldberg draws the clock hand with a Magic Marker. Then, Goldberg instructs her to cut out the clock face with scissors, which helps refine the girl's fine motor skills and eye-hand coordination.

Goldberg, executive director of the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, is always looking for that next opportunity to expand the horizons of the refugee and immigrant children and families served by the new facility.

The center, converted from three units at the Sunnyvale Apartment complex near 3900 South and 700 West, is a safe place for children to come for help with homework, to improve their English skills, eat a snack or take part in other supervised activities.

The program relies on community partners such as the Salt Lake County Library, Millcreek Rotary and SPLORE, a nonprofit organization that gives underserved populations access to recreational activities.

The Rotary Club furnished the center, which has served roughly 60 children and 50 adults since it opened last fall. Club members have an ongoing relationship with children and their families, regularly hosting parties and events.

This past week, club members helped the children put on a play at nearby Valley Center Park. Rotary volunteers provided the scripts, worked with the young actors on their lines, and provided the costumes.

Jane Mathew, a 10-year-old who emigrated to United States from Africa as an infant, said the neighborhood center is a good place to get a little help with math homework. But "getting to know people" is the main reason she enjoys going there.

"Well, that and the caring," she said.

The neighborhood center also serves parents with English instruction and parenting classes. A cooking and nutrition class is scheduled to start next month.

"What we're trying to do here is build families' capacities and help them understand what resources are out there," said Goldberg, who has a master's degree in social work and has worked with refugees in Utah and Thailand.

The center is managed by the Asian Association of Utah and also receives funding from the state Department of Workforce Services, Salt Lake County, the Good Samaritan Foundation, American Express, CIT Bank and UBS Bank. It serves families at the Sunnyvale and Driftwood apartment complexes.

"It's everything from crossing the street to understanding what our parenting standards are here. In some cultures, it may be appropriate to use physical punishment with your kids. Here, if someone hears that that happened, they might call DCFS," Goldberg said.

The center provides drop-in services such as assisting families who need help making medical appointments, reading their mail or understanding a notice left on the apartment door by their landlord.

Center employees and volunteers also help parents learn to advocate for their children at school and in other community settings.

While many refugee children thrive in school and socially, integrating into a new culture is difficult for others.

"Bring in a totally different culture, totally different language, and it can be really difficult for parents to help their kids understand how to live in this society, let alone themselves," Goldberg said. "So the kids tend to be vulnerable at school, especially if they don't speak the language. They can be picked on because they dress differently a lot of the time. We have a lot of families where the young ladies wear the hijab and cover themselves."

In addition to homework help, the center offers a program to help elementary school children brush up on social skills and take part in recreational activities.

Its teen program offers instruction about the risks of using tobacco, alcohol, drugs and engaging in sex. Teens also learn about domestic violence.

Heba Geiang, who is in the eighth grade, said she gets help with homework and helps mentor younger children at the center. She was born in a refugee camp in Egypt and emigrated to the United States when she was 3 years old.

Heba said she enjoys learning about the backgrounds of other refugee children she meets.

"That's what I want to know about, really. I'm writing a book," she said.

Recently, the center conducted a parent meeting, with the help of interpreters, to hear their perceptions of its programs.

"They told us, 'Our kids have a safe place to go. You guys give them a snack. We know when they're here, they're safe. You help them with their homework. I cannot help them with their homework. I can't even read with them a page.' I was just blown away with the gratitude the parents expressed. It was really touching," Goldberg said.

As much as staff members and community volunteers invest in improving the lives of families and children, Goldberg said she constantly learns from the families the center serves.

One Somali woman, who is a grandmother to some of the children in the Sunnyvale apartment complex and is considered a matriarch by other children, has taught Goldberg about helping children resolve conflicts.

If the children are squabbling about something, "she comes up to kids and kind of gives them this look and holds her hands out in front of her.

"She says, 'No, kids. Peace. Peace." And they get it," Goldberg said.

"I find I learn so much from these families, way more than I could ever teach them," she said.