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New Granite Refugee Center Helps Students Succeed

Nov 10, 2015 03:09PM ● By Stephanie Lauritzen

By Stephanie Lauritzen

Taylorsville - A development director of the Granite Education Foundation, is determined to help Utah refugee students and their families succeed in their new environments.  In order to better serve the thousands of students who enter the state each year, the Granite Education Foundation created the Granite Refugee Center, a center designed to address the needs of new students, from learning a new language to finding friends and support within the community.

“Imagine how difficult it is to be a 15-year- old 10th grader, without any English skills, to walk into a new classroom facing the same expectations and graduation requirements as their English-speaking peers. It’s extremely difficult, and extremely easy for this student to fall through the cracks,” she said.

Coffey’s work with the Granite Education Foundation motivated her and Granite School District superintendent Dr. Martin W. Bates to form a center specifically designed to address refugee needs. 

“In Utah, 70 percent of the refugee population lives in Salt Lake County, which means Granite School District has a special obligation to provide as much specialized training and education as possible, all designed to better assist our schools in addressing the needs of the refugee population,” Coffey said. 

The Granite Refugee Center opened in July 2015, and according to Granite School District, the center hopes to “offer educational, cultural and life skills opportunities for refugee families in Utah. It will also serve as a hub for business and community leaders to connect with families through service and mentoring.” 

Coffey said her role at the center is providing community awareness on how individuals, companies and service groups can get involved in serving the refugee community. “We work with everyone, from Eagle Scouts and moms looking for professional development opportunities, to businesses and financial institutions with the ability to finance grants and provide additional funding.” Coffey’s work with the Utah Refugee Center provides not only a partner in funding and service opportunities, but gives Coffey “a unique position to look at services and help coordinate efforts between both organizations. This means I can develop more specialized outcomes.” 

Granite communications and community outreach director Ben Horsley noted that since many students come directly from refugee camps, the center prioritizes providing basic items such as clothing and hygiene supplies for all members of the family. 

“The Refugee Center is unique in bringing together community members and resources to one location. This makes it easier for us to bring refugee individuals into our culture and give them the greatest opportunity to succeed in our schools. Even though these students represent a small percentage of our overall student population, their need is great,” he said. 

Refugee services also help students and parents navigate a new school system. In August, Coffey helped organize the Granite School District’s Refugee Outreach Event, which helped 500 refugee families access important health and educational services, like dental care and immunizations. The event also helped parents sign up for financial services such as fee waivers and free and reduced lunches. Now that the school year has started, the center will focus on providing parents and students with the resources needed to navigate the Utah school system. 

“Many of our students are second and third generation families that previously lived in refugee camps. They need help not only in accessing educational resources, but finding jobs, child care and transportation as well,” she said.

Coffey believes emotional health and community acceptance also play a significant role in helping refugee students adapt and thrive in school. “Part of our outreach program involves training educators and volunteers so they can help students feel included. If you look at school from the youth perspective, one of the most important things is the element of having friends.” 

 Refugee students are at a higher risk for falling into gangs and other negative social environments when they feel vulnerable and isolated at school according to Coffey. 

“It is so important for these students to feel welcomed and accepted, and to be given the opportunity to maintain true friendships. Once they feel like they fit in, other things seem to fall into place; when a student feels they belong, they are motivated to work harder. Isolation is one of the biggest difficulties for a refugee student,” she said.

In order to better serve refugee parents, the Granite Refugee Center also provides resources to help families establish themselves in the community. One of the major initiatives for the center is helping refugee families overcome institutional barriers. “Ninety-five percent of refugees rely on public transportation, which often involves switching from a train to a bus, or knowing where to get off and switch to a new train. This can make getting to school or work very difficult,” Coffey said. As a result, the center is working on developing a driver’s license program to increase refugee mobility. Additionally, the center will focus on helping parents, especially women, find affordable child care so they can work and provide for their families. “Essentially, the Granite Refugee Center will identify gaps in refugee services and help find out what various communities might need. Every community is different. We work with refugee community leaders like Utah Refuge Center refugee ambassador Thurl Bailey to find out what each community needs,” Coffey said. 

For individuals or organizations interested in working with the Granite Refugee Center, Coffey works directly with each volunteer to create a customized service project.  Coffey understands that “every volunteer has a unique niche and brings special skills to the community. I want to help them create a service project or professional development opportunity that emphasizes their talents and abilities. Those are the projects that are the most successful.”                             λ

Those interested in volunteering can contact Coffey through