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Refugee support program looking for more volunteers

Thrive is in need of volunteers to assist refugees in English, transportation and other miscellaneous needs as they transition to their new life in the Grand Rapids area.

/Jenean Zahran

Want to get involved? Attend these events happening at South Wyoming Methodist Church put on by Thrive.

A New Volunteer Orientation will take place on Sunday, March 30 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. to learn more about the program and ways to help refugees in the community.

A Pancake and Cala Breakfast is scheduled for Saturday, April 12 from 9:30 to 11:00 a.m. for a chance to meet the staff and volunteers of Thrive. Pancakes, sausage, coffee, juice, and cala (fried rice balls with toppings) will be available by donation.


For more information contact:

  • Jessica Gladden, Executive Director of Thrive, 616-206-4477.
  • Raquel Owens, Cultural Broker Coordinator, 269-303-3371.

/Jenean Zahran

/Jenean Zahran

Thrive: A Refugee Support Program, located at South Wyoming United Methodist Church, is looking for more volunteers to help support local refugees as they adjust to their new life in America. 

Thrive’s mission statement is “to provide Grand Rapids area refugees with a helping hand up by providing the services and opportunities needed to physically, economically and emotionally thrive in the community as our neighbors.” 

This nonprofit organization has helped refugees from countries all over, including Bhutan, Congo, Iraq, Rwanda and Liberia. Refugees from Congo and Burma are the two biggest groups they have helped so far.

“We take on families based on the amount of volunteers we have for our programs,” says Jessica Gladden, Executive Director of Thrive. “We are currently in need of volunteers for all programs, especially our Cultural Broker Program.”

This program, the largest of their efforts, connects volunteers to refugees after their initial resettlement program. 

“We started this program for families who need additional assistance after they have received up to three to six months of support from resettlement agencies through the government,” Gladden says. “We work with people who really don’t have any general assistance.”

An average of 600 refugees come to Grand Rapids each year, according to Gladden. Due to the lack of funding and volunteers, they are limited to working with 15 families at a time. 

"When we're open for referrals we turn down three to five families a week," Gladden says. "If we had 20 volunteers walk in today, we could put them all to work tomorrow."

English is always a big problem for the refugees, so the volunteers in the Cultural Broker Program will also assist with things such as reading their mail, help them with DHS (Department of Human Services for Food Stamps and Cash Assistance), or even help enroll their kids in school.

“We try to match up at least two volunteers per family so that they have a small team to work with,” Gladden says. 

 The volunteers then assist the families with a wide range of tasks, an important one being navigating their transportation needs.

“The refugees will generally not have a license or a car, and our bus system is not the easiest to get around, especially if you’re a single mom hauling kids around in the middle of winter,” Gladden says.

Assisting with transportation can be entirely separate from the cultural broker program, so if a volunteer does not want a long term commitment to a family they may sign up to help only with transportation as a back-up. Driving them to Thrive’s English class on Sundays at the church is one of the places volunteers will drive the refugees to. Most of the families live in Kentwood.

“From 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. we teach English class for adults after the church service,” says Gladden. “Right now it's primarily Congolese refugees, and a couple of Burmese that come too.”

The English as a Second Language (ESL) class is another program in need of volunteers. Volunteers can also assist with the refugee children while their parents are in class. No experience is needed to teach the class, and training will be provided.

Internships and work studies are available for undergraduate and graduate students majoring in social work, sociology or something related in the field. Internships for recent graduates looking to receive more experience in the field are also available.

“It is perfect training for a case management at a bachelors or social work level,” says Gladden.

People interested in volunteering or interning for Thrive can contact Jessica Gladden at 616-206-4477 or by email. A New Volunteer Orientation will take place on Sunday, March 30 from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at South Wyoming Methodist Church to learn more about the program and ways to help refugees in the community.

Anyone interested in donating can visit their website or mail contributions to Thrive: A Refugee Support Program (2730 56th St. S.W, Wyoming, MI, 49418).

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