Refugee Wins National Employee of the Year Award
June 15, 2016
When Pa Lung started working at the DoubleTree Austin Hotel in 2007, he had no idea he was part of something very special. Pa fled his home country of Burma and came to Austin as a refugee in April of that year. He was going to school before leaving Burma, so he lacked the job experience needed to gain employment in the United States.
Around the same time, Caritas’ Employment team was exploring potential partnerships with local hotels as a platform to employee refugee clients. They approached the DoubleTree Austin Hotel about a pilot effort. Melissa Daniel, Director of Human Resources for the DoubleTree Austin Hotel, was finding recruiting for entry level positions to be challenging, which made her open to a potential partnership with Caritas of Austin.
“We were apprehensive about working with individuals who spoke almost no English and who had minimal cultural exposure to the United States, but with the promise of support from Caritas, we made the decision to hire 10 Burmese associates to work in housekeeping, the restaurant, and the kitchen,” said Daniel.
Pa was one of those first 10. Nine years later, he is now a banquet chef at the hotel and was recently awarded the Sage Hospitality Associate of the Year Award. Sage Hospitality is the DoubleTree’s management company, and Pa was selected out of nearly 6,000 associates nationwide.
“When I was hired in the kitchen, I didn’t know anything,” said Lung. “I started learning to cut vegetables, then to grill, and eventually to cook.”
Daniel nominated Pa Lung for this award, noting that he excels in caring for team members, guests, and the community. “Pa Lung lives by these values every day. He is very supportive of his team mates, in the kitchen, and with Burmese associates throughout the hotel. He delivers excellence in the product he prepares for guests, and he is a devoted leader in the Burmese community in Austin.”
“I was very surprised to get the award,” said Lung. “I cannot even describe how happy it made me. I came here as a refugee with nothing, and my co-workers and managers have been so good to me.”
Since the placement of those first refugee clients, Caritas of Austin has built a robust in-house training and job placement program for the hospitality industry. Today, the industry makes up 30% of Caritas’ job placements.
Daniel said the partnership has been a win/win. “It has been an experience that has benefited every aspect of our business. The diversity this program has brought to our team has been culturally enriching. Watching newly arrived refugees go from low income housing to buying cars and homes has been inspirational. It is wonderful that we are able to help the community by providing jobs, training and growth opportunities while supporting our business with quality and engaged associates.”
Pa Lung does his part to encourage newly arriving refugees that they can have the same success he has. “I tell them just to work hard, don’t feel down, and you can be successful too.”
Refugee Children's Orientation Sets Students Up For Success
June 20, 2016
Being the new student in school is never easy. When you’re a new student who has never set foot in an American classroom, you face a unique set of challenges, particularly when you have spent most of your life living in a refugee camp or a country torn apart by war.
This is the reality for 989 refugee students in the Austin Independent School District. They come from different places – Afghanistan, Tanzania, and Burma, just to name a few. Despite varying cultures, many have a similar struggle of assimilating to the American way of schooling. The lack of familiarity with this new school environment, coupled with the added stress of being in a new country, leaves many students feeling overwhelmed during this time of transition.
“We started hearing different stories from refugee families,” says Houmma Garba, Education Services Program Manager at Caritas of Austin, “Kids were fighting and getting into trouble. Parents and teachers were frustrated.”
Students were equally frustrated. Many norms and expectations that American students grow up with – such as remembering to close a bathroom door or sitting still in a classroom – weren’t well-known concepts to refugee students.
As Caritas staff heard more of these stories, they began to recognize that refugee children experienced just as much culture shock as their parents. Caritas of Austin already has a cultural orientation program that teaches adult refugees about American culture and norms, transportation, finances, employment, and other tools they need in order to thrive in the United States. Garba and her team realized that an orientation specifically for children may prove equally valuable.
“We wanted to help them with their culture shock and focus on the main points kids should know as they enter school,” Garba said. Caritas of Austin’s education team researched the impacts of the refugee experience on children, including studying successful refugee education programs for school-aged children that had been implemented in other countries. They also spoke with Austin Independent School District teachers, to learn what refugee students were struggling with and how the program could be an asset for the teachers as well.
The new curriculum covers everything from an introduction to U.S. geography and the educational system to emotional intelligence. Topics range from personal hygiene and physical education to peer pressure and how to handle an emergency. Garba points out that the orientation reduces the amount of time teachers have to explain these things to their new students, and can focus more on helping them catch up academically.
“When you have rules, you know what to do and what not to do,” one eleven-year-old student chimes in as the students discuss the importance of rules and regulations in a classroom.
Since the implementation of the new curriculum, children have shown excitement around sharing thoughts about the new way of life they are discovering, and share the knowledge they already know. Sitting in the classroom with these students, it becomes clear just how similar they are to their American peers, in many ways.
With the little bit of extra confidence and knowledge gained from the Refugee Children’s Orientation program, refugee students are given the opportunity to truly shine in their new home.
A Couple's Resilience in the Face of Homelessness
May 25, 2016
Last year at this time, James and Kathleen were living in a tent along the Greenbelt, trying to survive Austin’s near-daily rains and frequent flooding.
“The weather was really tough for being homeless. We kept having to move our tent farther up the hill so it wouldn’t flood. We had tarps, but the rain was so much that it collapsed our tent,” said James.
The weather wasn’t the only adversity they faced. Kathleen was hospitalized after getting over 300 ant bites, raccoons regularly ate their food, and others living nearby even burned their possessions.
“We were just in survival mode. When we finally got connected to Caritas, everything changed,” he said.
In early weeks, their case manager, Aimee, brought necessities like water, food, bus passes, and dry sleeping bags, out to James and Kathleen’s campsite. With no income and limited rental history, housing the couple proved very difficult.
Thanks to the citywide initiative to end veteran homelessness, Caritas of Austin partnered with a property owner who rented all four units of a property to veterans. James served in the Marine Corps for from 1977-1983, and he and Kathleen were fortunate enough to move in to one of the units.
After a year and a half of homelessness, the couple moved from their tent into their own apartment last September. “Having a bed and a shower… I can’t even say how great it is. Knowing our food and possessions are safe too is really nice,” James said as he reflected on moving in.
Stable housing was just the beginning of their journey. James and Aimee worked with DARS and Easter Seals to help James gain steady employment. Kathleen also had many unaddressed health issues including lupus, diabetes, and high blood pressure. During their period of homelessness, Kathleen was not able to take her insulin and her medical care was primarily in cases of emergency.
In January, James proudly began working at Flyrite Chicken. “I love it. Everyone is so friendly here,” he said. Kathleen has also made significant progress maintaining her health in recent months.
“James and Kathleen have taught me so much about moving forward. That whatever today brings, they are focused on making it the best. I have laughed with them and cried with them. Together, they are a force,” said Aimee.
James cannot say enough about Aimee’s dedication to their success. “There is no one better than Aimee. She visited us in the hospital, at the campsite, and even on her day off. We consider her to be much more than just a case manager.”
As James and Kathleen have always done so well, they are looking forward. “I hope that we can stay stable where we are living, and I hope to become a supervisor at Flyrite,” James said.
Caritas North: A Year In Review
We opened the doors of Caritas North one year ago, marking the first major milestone in developing a ‘hub and spoke’ location model. Caritas North marked the first location outside of downtown since the organization was founded in 1964.
By the numbers, here is a snapshot of what’s been accomplished over the past year:
108 new households served
622 client touches across all Caritas of Austin services
5,035 meals provided from 332 Caritas North Pantry visits
A primary goal in opening a north Austin location was to improve accessibility of services for clients. It has been encouraging to hear a resounding ‘yes’ from clients in attending classes and appointments significantly closer to where they live and work. Additionally, the small size and calming environment of Caritas North has been valuable to the people we serve. Formerly homeless individuals, in particular, tell us how much they appreciate not having to go downtown where they used to frequent because that area can be a trigger to past traumatic events.
Offering a second Pantry has been a valued addition for clients who can save a trip downtown to pick up groceries. New classroom space at Caritas North has also allowed us to welcome north Austin neighbors to hold meetings and offer free ESL classes to clients.
While it’s hard to quantify, increased awareness in two specific areas has proven valuable: 1) A high number of walk-ins allows us to educate people about Coordinated Assessment and how to access services if you are experiencing homelessness. 2) Caritas North has also showed the community what we at Caritas of Austin know, that we are more than just a “soup kitchen”.
At our ribbon cutting last April, Executive Director Jo Kathryn Quinn said that her hope is that we become part of the fabric of this neighborhood. Over the past year, our team has built relationships with Austin Police officers in the area, gotten involved with the Restore Rundberg efforts and other neighborhood groups, and done a great deal of outreach with Austin ISD as well as nearby apartment complexes, property owners, and businesses. We strive to be great collaborators and plan to build on these relationships over the next year.
In an unexpected turn of events, Caritas of Austin was presented the opportunity to purchase Northgate Plaza, which houses Caritas North. With the support of Alori Properties and 36 investors, this property was purchased in August. Not only does it provide a sustainable income for Caritas of Austin, but it makes possible our bigger vision for this retail center to eventually house complementary nonprofit organizations to provide additional resources to this neighborhood.
So where do we go from here?
In the near term, we will focus on refining Caritas North as our first ‘spoke’. That includes continuing to grow staff and services at Caritas North, particularly to fill any gaps in services experienced in the first year. We want to expand educational offerings, both to clients and to the community at large. Long term, we remain committed to opening additional neighborhood centers in strategic locations throughout the Austin area. Thank you to the donors, volunteers, investors, and community members who have made Caritas North a success!
Homelessness State of the Union 2016
I often talk about Caritas of Austin working to make homelessness rare, short-term, and nonrecurring. This is our vision and we remain committed to that.
But are we making progress?
Earlier this month, ECHO published preliminary results of the 2016 Homeless Point- In- Time (PIT) Count. Over the past six years, the number has decreased by 29%.
But this year, that was not the case. Homelessness in our community was up 20% according to the count. As a close supporter, I want us to have an honest discussion about this reality.
A couple of things to know about the PIT Count:
- External factors like weather can impact the number of individuals identified as homeless. This year’s count was cold, increasing the number of people in shelter.
- There were significantly more volunteers this year helping with the PIT count, so it is difficult to know if the number of people experiencing homelessness is up, or if the counting was just more accurate.
Despite this, the truth is our community’s resources are not keeping up with the demand for services. Homelessness is happening more rapidly than we can address it through affordable housing, and this is a trend we are seeing nationally. We must remember that the availability of affordable housing is the most important factor in our ability to end homelessness as we know it.
So, where do we go from here?
The good news is that Caritas of Austin has learned a tremendous amount over the past 10 years of using evidence-based practices to address homelessness. Going forward, we must garner the resources necessary to scale these proven solutions proportionate to the rate at which homelessness is happening.
One inspiring example to demonstrate this truth is what our city has accomplished in ending veteran homelessness. We are incredibly close to achieving that goal, giving us a microcosm of what’s possible when resources are present. From federal housing vouchers for veterans and the mayoral challenge to end veteran homelessness, to the community’s support and Caritas’ work to rapidly rehouse veterans, it is this unified approach that works.
As an agency, we are actively exploring new ways to partner with housing developers to create housing for people with significant housing barriers.
We have also increased advocacy efforts with local and national leaders to bring about systemic change to make it easier to create affordable housing and remove obstacles for people who have housing barriers.
Be assured that every dollar of your support to Caritas of Austin is being put to work to end homelessness in the most effective ways possible. Though it often feels like we are swimming upstream, we are making progress. We have solutions that work, but they are not possible without your support.
Jo Kathryn Quinn, Executive Director
National Volunteer Appreciation Week
Happy National Volunteer Appreciation Week! This week we're celebrating hundreds of Caritas of Austin volunteers who gave an amazing 37,349 hours of service last year alone. They prepare and serve meals in our Community Kitchen, work directly with clients on their path to self-sufficiency, support staff members, delivery much-needed donations, and so much more. These volunteers make the work we do possible, and we'd like to share their stories with you.
Ricky Martinez, Community Kitchen Volunteer
This year for Lent, Ricky Martinez decide to dedicate his time to Caritas of Austin by serving in our Community Kitchen once a week. He had already been volunteering for three years but even after Lent, Ricky decided to continue his weekly volunteer service with Caritas of Austin. "I like knowing I'm providing a healthy meal for someone who needs one," Ricky says.
"Another volunteer driver wasn't able to drive anymore...I have been doing it ever since for 22 years."
Our volunteer driver Johnny has been making donation pick-ups possible for 22 years. He got his start with Caritas of Austin when he took over for the former delivery driver. "My most memorable volunteer experience is when people see me unloading the Caritas van and say thank you," Johnny says. Our volunteer delivery drivers make it possible for us to serve lunch in our kitchen, stock our pantry, and deliver much-needed donations to clients.
Luke Martinez, Board Member
"The looks and words of appreciation are very inspiring."
As a Community Kitchen and ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot volunteer and Board member, Luke has been an essential member of the Caritas of Austin family for five years. He is moved by being able to help and touch people's lives, and plays a huge role in Caritas of Austin's work and mission. "So many Austinites are in need and having the ability to touch more than 300 people's lives by helping to prepare and serve feels good," he says.
Anjali uses her Arabic language skills to guide our clients through the refugee process step-by-step. She helps introduce them to life in the United States, including teaching clients (sometimes entire families) how to use public transportation. "It is incredibly rewarding to contribute to an organization like Caritas," Anjali says of her service.