John Monfredo: The African Community Education Program Needs Mentors
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Several years ago two special people, Kaska Yawo and Olga Valdman, changed the fabric of the African Community in Worcester and made a difference for the children and their families. Yawo teamed up with Valdman in 2006 to establish the African Community Education (ACE) program, a non-profit organization with one goal in mind – helping the children in the African community now living in Worcester.
Yawo, a Liberian refugee, lived in a refugee camp growing up and his life was surrounded by civil war in West Africa until he came to the United States in 1998. He is currently a social worker at Catholic Charities in Worcester where he works as case manager for resettlement and immigration services and several years ago became a citizen of the United States. Valdman came from Russia as a teenager and, because of her love for learning, entered UMass Hospital as a medical student. She graduated from UMass Medical and is now finishing her residency in Lawrence, Massachusetts, but still makes time to be involved with the ACE program.
Olga connected with Kaska when she was involved in an internship at Catholic Charities as a student at UMass Medical School. Both dreamed about a program that would continue to grow, and as it moves into its sixth year, that dream has come true. As Kaska stated to me several years ago, “We strongly believe that an organization rooted in the community will have better sustainability and success.” He was right. Six years later, Kaska is still the Executive Director and Dr. Olga Valdman is still active in ACE as she serves on the Board of Directors.
Today the mission of ACE remains the same: to assist African youth in realizing their educational, cultural and social goals, while guiding them in becoming competent, responsible and productive citizens in the Worcester area as well as the greater society.
ACE’s experienced teachers and enthusiastic volunteers are dedicated to supporting the students’ needs as they move towards high school graduation and post-secondary success. ACE works closely with the Worcester Public Schools to ensure that the programs complement and enhance the education our students receive in school. Students are provided with opportunities to build strong relationships with their teachers, mentors, peers, and other members of the community.
ACE has continued its mission of focusing on immigrants and refugees, especially those coming from countries in conflict. Many children who come from countries in conflict have very little formal education. Some are in their teens and cannot read or do basic math – these are the children ACE reaches out to make a difference in their lives. The program takes place during the week from Monday-Thursday 3-6pm with homework help available to the children. On Saturdays, the students come from 8:30am-2:30pm for a math and English class, lunch, an activity period and group mentoring, called Express Yourself. The children are tested and placed in one of six classes based on their proficiency, regardless of their age or grade level. The Saturday activities also in include theater, dance classes and sports activities. ACE is located at the Fanning Building at 24 Chatham Street.
ACE added a mentoring component two years ago, but at the time according to Lila Milukas, ACE’s Ambassador of Mentoring, “It was a lot for the program to take on and it was not running according to best practices.”
Milukus went on the say that this year ACE is able to bring back the mentoring component with a program called the ACE Mentoring for Empowerment and Exchange (MEE). The program is designed to help develop a strong mentoring program that will make a difference in the lives of the students.
Thus, ACE is looking for adults over 18 from the community to mentor some of the students for a minimum of a year. Other mentor criteria are as follows: support an ACE student through an ongoing one-on-one relationship, serve as a positive role model and friend, and spend l.5 hours on Saturday with one of the students in the program. As a mentor you will be matched with a mentee who has similar interest and cultural background, a mentee who is an African refugee or immigrant in grades 5-12, and you will be asked to support the mentee in exploring their interest, community and goals.
What does a mentor get out of this program? A great deal of satisfaction in helping out a student in need, and that is priceless. For more information about the program go to http://www.acechildren.org. The mentor program is scheduled to start in January.
Having volunteered and assisted in this program in the past, I am convinced that ACE is making a difference in the lives of so many children. Several years ago at a fund raiser for ACE, a student in the program acknowledged that since going to ACE she has made many friends and learned to be more caring and accepting of others. She also stated, “My early childhood was very difficult for we had to escape from war and then live in a refugee camp for nine years. Without an education everything was made harder for me...but now I hope to achieve my goal and become a doctor some day.”
The children at ACE have the same dreams as other children. They want to be teachers, doctors, engineers and work in a job that will give them a good life. It is organizations such as ACE that hope to make their dream come true. So if you have to time look into being a mentor. Call ACE at 508-799-3653 and volunteer.
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