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

April 28, 2016

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!


National Volunteer Appreciation Week

April 11, 2016

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

"Love my neighbor is my motivation to stay involved."

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. 

Johnny Marcean, Volunteer Driver

"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 Khatri, Resettlement Volunteer

"Volunteers indirectly contribute to a better community." 

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. 


A New Start, A New Career Path

February 10, 2016

When Onel arrived in Austin last May, he was determined to get on a successful career path with Caritas of Austin’s help.

In Cuba, he worked as an aircraft technician and holds his Bachelor’s degree in Aviation.

“I have never had a client as motivated as Onel has been to further his education and obtain professional certification. From day one, he was willing to do anything it took to go to school,” said Fuad, Onel’s employment specialist at Caritas.

As is the case with many individuals resettling in Austin from around the world, Onel must restart his career from the ground up since most certifications and professional experience do not transfer.

Caritas’ Employment team often works with refugees who were lawyers, doctors, and engineers in their home country. While these individuals may have to find an entry level job to begin with, the Caritas team also supports their transition back into their field of practice through education and certification.

Because of Onel’s professional background, the Caritas team explored various vocational training options to help Onel advance his career in Austin. The Austin Career Institute offers a 4-month HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) program that interested Onel. The program is taught in Spanish and includes an English proficiency component, which was a perfect fit for his needs.

Because of your generosity, Caritas of Austin was able to underwrite Onel’s HVAC certification program. In August, Onel began the program on weekends, and he works in apartment construction and maintenance during the week.

After completing the program, Onel will be able to build on his current job and begin specializing in more technical work. With Austin’s warm climate, HVAC professionals are in very high demand and typically earn a minimum of $15 per hour.

Helping people obtain jobs that earn a living wage is a priority of Caritas’ Employment team, and it takes community employment partners in all industries to open doors to these opportunities.

Fuad said Onel’s enthusiasm to succeed pushed him even further to help him do whatever it takes to accomplish his goals.

Onel said Fuad and other Caritas staff members have been invaluable during his first months in the United States. “They are all wonderful. They have given me much advice and support and helped me get a job I hoped for. All of their services help people get ahead.”

In a year, he hopes to advance both in his professional skills and his English proficiency. He is well on his way thanks to your support of work!

If you are interested in learning more about Caritas of Austin’s Employment program, contact Amitiss Mahvash at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


Homelessness State of the Union 2016

March 31, 2016

Dear Friends,

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.

With gratitude,

Jo Kathryn Quinn, Executive Director