Student-run refugee outreach club thrives

An award ceremony for the graduating seniors at the Heritage Learning Program. Courtesy photo
An award ceremony for the graduating seniors at the Heritage Learning Program. Courtesy photo
Champlain Valley Union High School junior Natalie Meyer of Hinesburg started the Refugee Outreach Club last year with the purpose of getting high school students involved in international service locally and abroad through working with local New American students at different tutoring and mentorship programs.

The club has grown, now with chapters at South Burlington and Mount Mansfield Union high schools, with more schools starting soon, Meyer said. Refugee Outreach Club Inc., or ROC as it is better known, is a nonprofit with a diverse board of directors.
We spoke to Meyer on Nov. 17.

Q: Why the Refugee Outreach Club?

Natalie Meyer: The idea came about after I returned from three weeks in Ghana. Before I went to Ghana, I worked at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. That was my first introduction to New Americans. When I returned from Ghana in the summer of 2014, I wanted to continue working with the international community, but do it locally, and include other high school students.

Q: What is your mission?

NM: ROC Inc. is striving for the balance of opportunity with service locally and globally. This means getting high school students involved with the international community by providing mentoring, tutoring and friendship with New Americans.

Q: Why is this important for our community?

NM: Before ROC, Inc., I was not aware of any opportunities for high school students in Vermont to engage in service with foreign students. I believe the cultural exchange of ideas is crucial to developing oneself as a global citizen. I also think it is important to start being involved in the international community from a young age. 

Q: How many volunteers have you recruited?

NM: Combined, we now have over 140 student volunteers who participate in an ROC chapter.

Q: Who have been guest speakers in the past? Who is slated to speak? When? Where?

NM: We had John Koerner from 52 Kids Foundation and Kimball Butler from Vermont Haiti Project come and speak last year. We have had high school students give personal experience presentations on their international experiences, including Honduras, Uganda and Ghana. 

Alex Bozzette from Population Media is scheduled to present to students this year. John Curtis, an international educator, started a project to take students to Mwandi. Steve Shephard, a communications specialist, will present on issues of technology and the developing world. Jessica Brit, a former Tetratech employee and former Safe Passages employee, will speak about opportunities through Safe Passages in Guatemala and her service abroad.

Q: How far have you come from your original idea and what are your new goals?

NM: We have completely surpassed all of my original ideas and goals. It started last fall with a loose group of students who were interested in international service and studies. We wanted to create a program that would have a lasting, positive impact on our community.

We were not quite sure what that would be, but then Veronica Bernicke introduced me and her son, Charlie, to the Heritage Learning program in Burlington. That was a tutoring/mentorship program for Burundian students. I started CVU ROC as a way to have kids become involved in the tutoring program. In March 2015, the first club meeting had 35 students; by the end of June, the club had over 67 members.
We had over 10 kids going every Saturday to Burlington to provide math and English tutoring. The support was overwhelming. We held two successful fundraisers, a school supplies drive (throughout all of Chittenden County, and collected over 500 items that were donated to the Vermont Refugee Resettlement program); we also did the Nepali bracelet drive after the earthquake and raised over $2,200 for Save the Children in four days.

Q: Who is on the board?

NM: I wanted to create a board that had a variety of strengths that would support the mission. Mark Perkell, Esq. is a business attorney and a master at networking and connecting the right people for the right job.

Amy Poland, LCMH is an amazing program developer, and her experience working with teenagers combined with her foreign service experience is a perfect combination of assets for the board.

Eric Hanson, CFA and CFP is a dynamic person. He brings to the board his experience in finance, international relations, and international education, and donates his time to various charities.

Veronica Bernicke is a fabulous woman–she teaches French, and introduced me to the Burundian community through her work with them, and was the inspiration for ROC.

Alex Bozzette is the current program manager for Latin America and East Africa for Population Media. He was a former Global Health Corps fellow in Burundi. He has experience in public health and brings to the board unsurpassed energy and social medial and general communication skills.

Augie Arms is a senior at South Burlington High School and has been instrumental in getting ROC out of CVU and onto the larger high school network.

Finally, Gene Richards is the current director of aviation at Burlington International Airport, and the CEO of Spruce Mortgage. He has extensive fundraising and international experience supporting non-profits, including a program in Uganda.
Q: What are the upcoming projects?

NM: ROC is partnering with Vermont Interscholastic Council for a statewide winter clothing drive through Dec. 10. We will have our second annual school supplies drive in the spring. We will have a Syrian refugee crisis fundraiser, selling phone cases with a special design, by ROC member Hadley Crow.