Student Volunteers Build Bridges to American Life for Refugee Children

February 13, 2008
February 12, 2008 — When third-year University of Virginia student Stephen Rogers found handfuls of Halloween candy heaped on his truck seat, he knew he had accomplished something.

Volunteering with a student-created program called "Bridging the Gap," Rogers began mentoring a trio of Somali Bantu brothers about a year and a half ago. They gave him the candy, and that's when he realized "his boys" had learned to share — a big change, he said, from the aggressive competitiveness they learned for survival in the Kenyan refugee camp where they were born.

For Maggie Poandl, a fourth-year student who is the head program director of Bridging the Gap, the most inspiring moments have come when one of her "little sisters" steps out of her shy uncertainty to read aloud and then discuss what she has read — all in English.

AUDIO SLIDE SHOW: Maggie Poandl describes the Bridging the Gap program.

Bridging the Gap, a program for refugee children resettled in the Charlottesville area by the International Rescue Committee, moved last fall into Madison House, the University's student volunteer center. The move helped ensure a more solid future for the venture, started by a U.Va. student two years ago, that is building bridges into American life for families adopting a new home and country. Almost 1,000 refugees from around the world have resettled to Charlottesville in the 10 years, at a rate of about 150 a year.

U.Va. alumnus Clay Broga, who graduated last year, thought of beginning the program after coaching some refugee boys on a local soccer team in spring 2006 and mentoring them over the summer. He decided to launch a more formal organization that fall, asking friends to join him.

Now the program recruits new student members each semester and has grown to more than 80 volunteers helping about 75 children from several countries. A small group of U.Va. students works with two or more siblings to ensure at least two volunteers will be able to see the children at least once a week, and more often during soccer season.

"Bridging the Gap works to bring happiness to the children's lives while helping them acquire the tools essential for obtaining America's unmatched opportunities," Broga wrote in describing the program.
The U.Va. volunteers conduct a range of activities with the children: they tutor them in English, supervise homework, read with them, take them to play in nearby parks, take them to soccer practices and games and organize special events for them, such as ice-skating, apple-picking and U.Va. sports outings. They have set up a library with donated books in a city housing division. Sometimes they just hang out with the kids and watch a movie on DVD.

A Texas native, Rogers had experience giving children with disabilities horseback-riding therapy and jumped at the chance to work with children again when Broga recruited him at their fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi. He helped organize a visit with the children to a nearby horse farm.

"The kids keep me involved," he said. "The love they show you is so touching." Seeing how they progress in their English and social skills is gratifying, but working with them also has made him appreciate the small things and the big opportunities Americans often take for granted, he said.

Poandl said she "fell in love with the girls" she has been mentoring for nearly three years. "They're gracious, intelligent, eager to learn and fun. This is a unique opportunity to make a big impact on these kids."

At the Bridging the Gap library, the volunteers began a project called "The Reading Train" to promote the children's writing and critical-thinking skills, as well as their reading. When they finish a book and complete a written worksheet about it, they get to decorate a car to add to the train, which is being posted on the walls around the room. Each child gets points for adding to the train and is eligible to win a prize when the train is completed.

"One little girl has made eight cars already. She really wants to win a pink guitar," Poandl said.

Evan Parter, a fourth-year economics major, is another volunteer who has been working with three African boys since the program began. Last summer, he interned with Light House youth media center, working with a high-school student, Kiley Petencin, and a middle-schooler Anne McGiniss, in making a documentary. He suggested focusing on the boys he mentors in a family with eight children originally from the Congo, but born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. They came to Charlottesville in 2005. Parter also worked on a project helping five of the children make their own videos.

"Bridging the Gap has made my time at U.Va. meaningful and memorable," Parter said. "I can't tell you how happy the kids are when they are playing soccer with their mentors. They are also so eager to learn.

"One of my kids, Byadunia, knew very little English when he came to the U.S. in 2005, and now he is a member of the honor society as an eighth-grader at Buford Middle School."

Two of Byadunia's sisters and two other brothers are also in Parter's mentoring group with four U.Va. volunteers.

"I cannot say enough about the volunteers," said Debra Beale, a sixth-grade reading teacher at Walker Upper Elementary School. She not only teaches many refugee children, but also helps families informally, along with her husband, Sonny Beale, superintendent of U.Va.'s recycling program.

"They have so much to do [in college] and yet they give their time to these kids. They show compassion, kindness, empathy. They're willing to think of others first and are such good role models," she said.

After getting into the rhythm of college, second-year student Sarah Berry said she realized she wanted something else "worthwhile" to do and found out about the program through the Student Activities Web site.

"These kids are unique," Berry said. "They need our help for a different reason [than other children]. It's not their fault, the situation they're in."

Berry goes to her mentees' English as a Second Language class at Buford Middle School. She also loves playing soccer with them and will be helping the children when they play on teams this spring.

Elizabeth Bass, associate director of Madison House, is advising the Bridging the Gap program, the newest of the volunteer center's 18 programs. Being part of Madison House will enable the students to develop their leadership skills and learn more about long-term planning, she said.

Susan Donovan, director of the Charlottesville IRC, said her organization looks forward to working with Madison House. "What they're doing is valuable," she said.

Madison House serves as the student volunteer center at the University of Virginia. It coordinates volunteers, develops leaders, builds community partnerships and promotes lifelong volunteer service. For information, see

— written by Anne Bromley