Charlotte’s out-of-school program ourBRIDGE helps refugees cope

The program bridges the gap between school and home, helping newcomer children to the United States with everything from learning English to learning about the culture.

CHARLOTTE, NC – Imagine moving to the United States, not speaking the language, not knowing the culture, and trying to understand everything during a pandemic. Hundreds of new refugees in our region have struggled to adjust, this year more than ever.

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

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

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Angel Ponce is a 5th grade student there.

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

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

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

“There is a huge lack of services for newcomer families and we know the number will continue to increase,” said our BRIDGE executive director, Sil Ganzo.

Already a third of the students at Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools speak a different language at home, so our BRIDGE is teaming up with CMS and Mecklenburg County and realized during the pandemic how important their services are.

“The families we work with were on the fringes long before COVID,” Ganzo said. “All COVID has done is exacerbate whatever was already a challenge for families.”

These challenges include navigating the health and education systems and obtaining and maintaining employment.

Eighty percent of our BRIDGE families lost part of their income to the pandemic, so the center decided they needed to expand – opening this second site only for middle school students.

“My students are extremely keen to learn English fluently, I can already see a huge transformation and growth in them,” said Elisa Benitez, site coordinator for the college.

This is something she said the entire community of Charlotte ultimately benefits from. Over 100 children are already on the waiting list, so they are looking for a third site for next fall.

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