After-school program works with refugee community in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by JAVAN RIVERA

Watch the children as they wait to get into the Dream Center. Video courtesy of Susanna Metzger.

It’s a perfect picture of ordered chaos. Children run, screaming with joy and enthralled with the sheer delight of playtime. With the simple act of holding up their hands and the waving of two colored flags — one red, one yellow — two volunteers bring the disorder to a more reasonable level. The children begin to line up, still chatting with one another, but preparing for the evening’s activities. So begins another Monday night at The Utah Dream Center.

The Utah Dream Center is a nonprofit organization located on the west side of Salt Lake City that focuses the majority of its efforts on helping the refugee community that exists there.

Salt Lake City is one of only a handful of major cities across the United States that regularly takes in refugees. The west side of Salt Lake City and the neighborhoods surrounding the Dream Center in particular, have become saturated with people from countries spanning the globe.

The goal of the Dream Center is to help reach out to the community that resides in what the director of the center, Alfred Murillo, likes to call, “the west side strip.”

This section of Salt Lake City encompasses the neighborhoods of Glendale and Poplar Grove. These neighborhoods are filled with children that come from dozens of countries, and it’s these children that the Dream Center program known as The Open Door works with on a weekly basis.

The Open Door is an after-school program under the direction of Susanna Metzger that works in tandem with the Utah Dream Center to try to create a relationship with the community and provide a place where the children can go to learn and have fun. The partnership is now thriving, with children thronging to the dream center every Monday night.

“The relational aspect is the key thing,” said Jeff Friel, one of the regular volunteers at The Open Door.

Friel said he believes the ability to get to know the children on a weekly basis is very important to the core of the program. Whether that’s something as simple as figuring out which children don’t speak English well, or just seeing the children’s knowledge base grow as they come back week after week, he feels that it’s those connections that make the program work.

“We can focus on knowing where they’re at (academically),” Friel said, “and we can actually grow and seeing how we can actually be a part of their lives.”

The Open Door, which is open Mondays from 6- 8 p.m., began four years ago under the leadership of Bonnie Strickland Beck. Strickland was the director of outreach at a local Salt Lake City church known as K2 The Church, and first made contact with Murillo in 2007.

According to Murillo, Strickland had heard about the various programs and events Dream Center did in the community, and she was interested in creating a program that could work with the children in the direct vicinity of the organization.

Due to the high number of programs coordinated at the Dream Center, he suggested that Strickland and her team work with the idea, and that the Dream Center would help where it could.

Murillo sees his job as being there to help bring programs like The Open Door to life, but not necessarily to micromanage them.

“The idea of the Dream Center is to empower those who have a dream,” Murillo said, “and to fulfill what they want to do.”

Metzger, who now heads The Open Door, was there as a volunteer early on. She said how much the program has grown since it first began. With weekly attendance fluctuating between 30-50 kids, the program has seen a dramatic uptake in children participating.
The Open Door currently operates on a simple schedule based around tutoring, activities for the children, free time and a meal provided by the volunteer staff.

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Throughout the school year, volunteers from the program start every Monday evening near 5 p.m. by setting up the various tables, chairs, and crafts and tutoring supplies needed for the program. They then begin heading out into the neighborhood to gather the children and walk them back to the Dream Center where they can begin check-in.

“We try to bring them in small groups for check-in to help maintain order,” Metzger said.
The children waiting to sign in at the front table are allowed to play outside in the parking lot of the Dream Center.

Once check-in is complete, all the children gather in the main area of the Dream Center and are usually taught a short lesson through the use of either a basic story, or a skit performed by the volunteers.

Friel said the Christian volunteers respect the diverse ethical and religious backgrounds of the refugee children. Because the majority of the volunteers come from various Christian churches or organizations around the Salt Lake Valley, they try to show consideration for the children’s backgrounds by only bringing in Christian-themed lessons during the time of year when they are relevant.

“We do Christ-based lessons around Christmas and Easter,” Friel said. “The rest of the time we stick to really basic principles; stuff like respect, honesty and honoring each other.”

After the object lesson, the children are divided into groups based on age and are sent to different sections of the building.

“There are three groups,” Metzger explained. “Red and yellow are the younger children, and green is the older group.”

The younger children in the red and yellow groups split off into two activities. While one group works on reading or getting help with their homework, the other group does arts and crafts or plays simple games.

The green group, which focuses on children ages 11-16, works on its own during this time. The Open Door has recently partnered with the Pregnancy Resource Center of Salt Lake City to work with the “high risk” children that occupy the neighborhoods surrounding the Dream Center.

Terri Kerr, one of the volunteers who is part of the partnership with the Pregnancy Resource Center, said the curriculum for the green group is separate from that of the rest of the children. It’s designed to help those involved to think positively about their future, and also focuses on the proper way to interact with people and how to form healthy relationships.

Currently, The Open Door only has around 20 volunteers, something that Metzger would like to see change in the future. With as much as the program is able to achieve, it is still limited by the fact that the children in the program outnumber the volunteers by a ratio of almost two to one.

With more volunteers, and more time to invest, Metzger said her dream would be to see the program expand to the point that it can become a part of the children’s everyday lives, especially with the older children.

“We see a lot of the older kids come and go,” Metzger said. “I would love to see that part of the program grow in particular.”

The Dream Center is empty at the end of the night. The shouts of excited children no longer fill the building. Instead, one hears the voices of the volunteers as they gather to debrief for the evening. They discuss the events of the night, finish cleaning up and prepare to do it all over again.