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'There's a huge gap in services for families who are newly arrived' | Charlotte after-school program helps refugees adapt

The program bridges the gap between school and home, helping kids new to America with everything from learning English to learning the culture.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Imagine moving to the United States, not speaking the language, not knowing the culture, and trying to figure it all out during a pandemic. Hundreds of refugees new to our area have struggled to adapt, this year more than ever before. 

A special after-school program has been seeking solutions and just expanded to help these students.

ourBRIDGE has been trying to expand since they opened seven years ago and COVID-19 really amplified the need -- so they just opened a new site and already there’s a need for more.

RELATED: Charlotte nonprofit opens new site to benefit immigrant, refugee youth

Angel Ponce is a 5th-grade student there. 

"A lot of my friends are different colors from me but that doesn’t matter to me," Ponce said. "A lot are Hispanic, some are African, Muslim."

Ponce is one of the hundreds of kids who come every day after school to ourBRIDGE. The program literally bridges the gap between school and home, helping kids new to America with everything from learning English to learning the culture.

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Some kids have only been here a few days when they come to ourBRIDGE.

"There's a huge gap in services for families who are newly arrived and we know the number is going to continue to grow," ourBRIDGE executive director Sil Ganzo said. 

Already one-third of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students speak a different language at home so ourBRIDGE partners with CMS and Mecklenburg County, and realized during the pandemic just how important their services are.

"The families we work with have been in the margins way before COVID," Ganzo said. "All COVID did was exacerbate everything that was already a challenge for families."

Those challenges include navigating the healthcare and school systems and getting and keeping jobs.

Eighty percent of ourBRIDGE families lost some of their household income because of the pandemic, so the center decided they had to expand -- opening this second site solely for middle schoolers.

"My students are extremely eager to learn fluent English, I can already see a huge transformation and growth in them," Elisa Benitez, the middle school site coordinator, said.  

It's something she said the entire Charlotte community ultimately benefits from. More than 100 kids are already on the waiting list, so they’re looking for a third site for next fall.

Contact Michelle at mboudin@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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