Story and slideshow by COLLIN McLACHLAN
Last time you were around Thanksgiving dinner and you had to go around the table and say what you’re thankful for, did you say “a chance to go to school and get an education”? If you did say that, did you really mean it?
For refugees who attend the Utah Dream Center’s Open Door reading classes, anyone can see that they mean it.
The Utah Dream Center is a nonprofit organization that operates on the west side of Salt Lake City, near an area of refugee housing. According to the Center’s website, its students are devoted to “transforming their neighborhood into a thriving community.” The Utah Dream Center “holistically provides physical, educational and Christian programming to strategic neighborhoods throughout the state of Utah.”
The Center has a number of different programs that are designed for the benefit of people who are living on the west side of Salt Lake. Some of these programs are: Open Door, an after-school reading tutor program; SierraAlta Bible College; Arts Academy; Urban Flow, a multicultural dance class; and a clothing outreach program. Most of the programs that are offered at the Dream Center are free and open to the public.
The Dream Center works with refugees who come from all over the world. Volunteers from the Dream Center will go recruiting by knocking on doors of the apartments near the Center and inviting residents to participate in the activities.
“One of my favorite things is when we do the reading part of the program,” said Susanna Metzger, 27, director of the Open Door after-school reading program, in an interview. “Just reading books with the kids, I can see them learning and improving. I think that’s really awesome.”
The Dream Center focuses on a faith in Christ to effect change in the community. Its website states, “Jesus Christ’s transforming power compels us to emphasize compassion, hope and restoration in each of our programs.” The Dream Center, however, deals with immigrants from all over the world, some from areas with state religions.
“We do not try to force a religion on them,” Metzger said. “Once parents realize that we’re here to just help with their education, or feed them dinner, then I think they start to be more at ease with us.”
Metzger directs the Open Door program. It meets every Monday for reading or math tutoring. Metzger says anyone is allowed to come and receive free tutoring. A Dream Center volunteer will either help a child with their math or reading homework, or will read a book with them.
“It’s loosely structured at the beginning,” Metzger said. “So when the kids show up we’ll play with them and hang out, build relationships.” After the building relationships portion, the students will split up into two groups according to their age. These groups will rotate between reading or homework and doing crafts.
Metzger has been a part of the Open Door program for about four years. Being the director of the program, she leads the 12 to 15 regular volunteers the Dream Center has in personally tutoring the 40 to 50 kids who come in every Monday, which she says is a challenge. She says that what she loves most is seeing a student learn something. “A concept will catch in their heads and it’s one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments,” Metzger said. “I get to experience that with them. I love it.”
Shalom Boutwell, 20, has been volunteering at the Dream Center for nearly a year. In an interview, she talked about why a lot of kids love the Center. “It’s easy for a student to become comfortable because all the other students are ones they go to school with,” Boutwell said. “They’re growing up together and learning together at the same time.”
Boutwell says that her favorite thing to see is when students are excited for the opportunity to learn. “They look forward to it every week, they run to our cars as we pull up, they’re sitting on their porches waiting for us to come knocking,” Boutwell said with a smile. “They love it, and I love building those relationships, to have the students remember your name every time you come, best feeling in the world.”
Marien Niwenshupi, 13, has been a student at the Dream Center for about two years.“My favorite thing is coming and talking to the ladies,” Niwenshupi said. “They really help a lot with your homework. That’s what I really like.”
Volunteers for the Open Door program found Niwenshupi by knocking on her door. She is from Zambia, and is very grateful for the opportunity she now has to attend school.
Niwenshupi said that in Zambia, “it’s really hard because your parents have to pay money, and in Africa, that is hard because they don’t have jobs. Sometimes it’s hard for parents to pay for their students.” If parents, like hers, can’t afford to send their kids to school, they are never able to go.
“But here, it’s really nice. They pay for your school,” Niwenshupi said, with optimism in her eyes. “I wish I was there right now, because I would say ‘Yeah, I’m going to school!’”
Niwenshupi said the Center offers a lot of fun activities. “It’s a good place to be on Mondays,” she said.