Volunteers from a United Church of Christ congregation in Annandale, Va., are spending a lot of time doing homework. Several members of Little River United Church of Christ are assisting and accompanying refugee families in their community through their involvement in the Good Neighbor Project's Homework Club.
Little River UCC and three other churches in Northern Virginia—Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church, Ravensworth Baptist Church and John Calvin Presbyterian Church—created the ministry as an ecumenical partnership to support their new neighbors.
"The goal of the Homework Club is to engage with resettled refugee and Special Immigrant Visa families by helping their school-aged kids with homework, working with parents to meet their specific goals, and encouraging interactions, culture-sharing, and friendships to grow," said the Rev. Alexis Vaughan Kassim, Little River UCC's associate pastor.
The families are referred by Lutheran Social Services (LSS) or a by a local elementary school. The Homework Club meets on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month from 10 to 11:30 am.
"Originally a committee was formed to resettle a Syrian refugee family," said the Rev. Janet Parsons Mackey, a retired UCC pastor and one of Little River's project leaders. The church had once supported a refugee family from Afghanistan and was interested in doing that again. However, when the current U.S. administration curtailed visas for refugee families, "we had to move in a different direction."
Under President Trump, the number of refugees permitted to resettle in the United States has been reduced every year. In 2020, that cap will be cut nearly in half to 18,000, down from the previous refugee ceiling of 30,000.
Church volunteers found another way to serve several area Afghani families after LSS suggested the Homework Club could provide help to school-aged children and their mothers, who Mackey said are more home bound and in greater need of assistance with English.
In 2018 the group came together for several dinners, an introduction to Afghan culture and recruitment of volunteers. The first session of the Good Neighbor Project's Homework Club was held in January 2019.
"Members of LRUCC have been involved in all areas of this program from serving on the steering committee, recruiting and training volunteers, tutoring the children who participate, and leading efforts to collect and repair old computers so that adults in these families can apply for jobs and services more easily," Vaughan Kassim said. "There is also a core team of folks who offer families rides to and from the Homework Club, as transportation is a hardship for many."
Peace Lutheran hosts the Homework Club. Families gather as a whole group for a few minutes before individuals are paired with volunteers. Every week, two to three dozen people are offered assistance.
"The children and adults choose what kind of help they want, such as preparing for a test, or practicing reading, or learning the common names for things, depending upon skill level," said Mackey.
Children of all ages—from aged three through high school—can also get individual tutoring which is not often possible in public school.
"We are never sure which families will be able to participate," Mackey continued. "We contact them ahead of time and seek the help of LSS in doing so." Church volunteers sign up through a website so they can be matched with those who need help.
Ten members of Little River UCC have become volunteers, with others contributing books, tutoring materials and used computers.
"The opportunity to be a part of welcoming refugee families is a blessing to so many UCC churches, like Little River," said Amanda Sheldon, program associate, UCC Refugee and Asylum Ministries. "Their ministry helps create community and is a living embodiment of the Gospel call to love our neighbors. That's what church is."