By Joe Vaccarelli for The Denver Post | Sharon McCreary’s job has been so intense over the past three months, she had to take a vacation to Mexico to recuperate from all the extra hours she’s been logging.
McCreary is the volunteer coordinator for the Colorado Refugee ESL program at the Emily Griffith Technical College and since late October 2016, she’s been inundated with volunteer applications from the public. And many of the new applicants are citing the recent presidential election and negative rhetoric regarding immigrants and refugees as the reason for applying.
“That is the overwhelming reason. People are open about it. They are frustrated with the outcome of the election and the rhetoric that’s been floating around,” McCreary said. “People finally feel moved to get up and show that that is not everyone here.”
The volunteers mostly work in classes where refugees and immigrants are learning English, while some do in-home tutoring for refugees who are not able to get to the school for classes. Typically, those who need an in-home tutor are placed on a wait list that could last up to six months. Now, that list is exhausted and it’s the volunteers who are being placed on a wait list.
In the past, McCreary usually had four or five inquiries per week and received maybe two or three applications, but she now has more than 150 applications on her desk. For her three most recent orientation sessions for volunteers — usually occurring every four to six weeks — she’s cut the class off at 20 members and has 30 signed up for the next session. Before the election, orientations had 10 people on average.
For new volunteer Heather Anderson, she decided to sign up after hearing talk during the election season about a ban on allowing Muslims to enter the country — talk that has moved to the fore after President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration order last week. She has a teaching background and has worked with families from the Middle East in the past and felt there was a stereotyping of people from that region and of the Muslim faith. She registered to volunteer at the end of November along with her daughter and is waiting to be placed in a class.
“I had to take some action instead of being frustrated,” Anderson said. “It’s super encouraging to know there is that many people who want to take action and support people who are trying to come here and take refuge.”
It was a similar sentiment for Samantha Barlow, who registered to volunteer in September and spends time in two classes throughout the week, assisting refugees learn English. She said she has found the experience very rewarding so far.
She is also excited to hear that others have felt the same way. She’s been using the election as a recruitment tool for friends who want to do something to show they care about the refugee population.
“Even in September, I was aware of the political climate and the divisive nature of the campaign, so now feels like the right time for action. So many have been thirsting for it,” Barlow said.
The influx has allowed the school to think about new ways to use volunteers and consider new projects that it was not able to explore in the past.
Adult education dean of instruction Hillary Frances noted that she is glad to see so many volunteers show interest. Through various partners and refugee organizations in the area, the school connects with refugees who hail from all around the world, including Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, among many others. The language school has 2,500 students annually from 72 countries, speaking 94 languages.
“The best thing we can do is paint a picture of who immigrants are and paint a picture of humanity,” Frances said.
Amy Nafziger has seen that picture of who immigrants are and it has made her six years as a volunteer a very valuable experience.
One of the best things, she said, is that she gets to learn about other cultures while the people she is helping are learning about American culture.
“One thing I love about doing this work is that I see how students perceive our culture. I’ve learned so much about my country through their eyes, and I learn a lot about their culture without leaving Denver,” Nafziger said. “Now, it’s pretty fashionable to criticize our country, but the students make me see what’s good about our country.”
Emily Griffith program supervisor Ryan Yates said recent events have affected many of the students and this spike in the number of people volunteering to help has been a bright spot during this time.
“Our student populations are starting to feel threatened, I think,” Yates said. “It’s really encouraging to see this influx of interest in volunteers because it means there is a large group of people in our community that are stepping up to protect groups that are vulnerable like immigrants and refugees.”
The school is not alone in seeing an increase of volunteers as other organizations that work with refugees have seen similar results since November.
Marta Welch with the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning noted that their volunteer programs that work with refugees have grown in the past few months. The ECDC African Community Center also noted that 1,000 people came out to help with their Thanksgiving dinner, about double the total in 2015.
The African Community Center also reported that they have had 208 people sign up for volunteer orientations that are scheduled between January and March of this year. In all of 2015, 224 people went through orientation.
“We have seen a huge upsurge of support,” said Melissa Theesen, managing director of the ECDC African Community Center. “Knowing that things could shift, people wanted to know how they could help and that has continued with a steady stream. … I think people know what refugees bring to the community and want that tradition to continue.”
Joe Vaccarelli covers Denver and Lakewood for the YourHub section of The Denver Post. Prior to coming aboard in 2011, he worked with Mile High Newspapers. Vaccarelli also teaches percussion at schools in Golden and Littleton and performs with the Denver Broncos Stampede and Denver Nuggets Skyline drumlines.