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Easterseals Program Recruits Immigrant Workers To Help Children With Disabilities

Courtesy Easterseals NH
The graduating class of the first New Americans Program at Easterseals NH.

Easterseals New Hampshire was trying to fill 280 open positions in Manchester to serve children with physical, neurological or behavioral disabilities. To fill those open positions, Easterseals had to get creative.

So they created the “New Americans Program,” which trains immigrants and refugees to work with children in the Jolicoeur School in Manchester. This new program teaches the immigrants English along with crisis intervention, first aid and other skills. The program was started by Tina Sharby, Chief Human Resources Officer at Easterseals NH. She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about the New Americans Program.

Tell us a little bit about the children being served by this program. Who are they and what stage of their lives are they in?

These are children between the ages of eight and 21 with varying disabilities, some physical, most mental, neurological, behavioral disabilities. So they will come to us and attend our school and then stay with us residentially overnight. Some we try to reunite with their parents. Some don’t have active involved parents. So it depends on how they’ve come to us.

And the immigrants who are working with them through the New Americans Program—do they come from any one country or a variety of countries?

A variety of countries. The first group—because of the work of the Welcoming Manchester group—one of the members of that committee is the head of the Congolese community, so we did get quite a few individuals from the Congo.

Tell us about their interactions. How are they working together?

It’s just amazing. They’re so much fun. They’re so appreciative of our taking the time to develop this training program so that they can start an entry-level position. We provide them additional support. We check in on them. We had a three-month group and then a six-month group. This particular group that’s going through we assigned mentors. So they’re very engaged. They kind of become like their own little group. They help each other out if someone’s having a difficult time. It’s just remarkable to watch.

Why do you think this group of immigrants is uniquely suited to work with this population of children? What is it about this experience that lends itself to such a good interaction?

I really think that they have experienced and witnessed such tragedy in their home countries that they have the empathy for the individuals they’re serving. It’s not an easy job. It’s a hard job. Some students can be pretty aggressive and hard to deal with, but when you compare that to trying to find food and water—basic necessities to live—they get it, they just get it.

Can you give an example of an immigrant who was paired with a child and the experience for both worked out really well?

I can tell you from the employee’s perspective. One of them has told us about how, when he works with the children, he sometimes can recall situations where he has been working in the refugee camps and how he wants to be able to make an impact, to make a difference in these children’s lives. They all talk about making a difference where they can. Where they couldn’t was back home.

How will you know if the program is working as intended?

We need to see the staff engage with the students and the residents. That’s the biggest piece. They have to be willing to go outside and go for a walk or go play basketball and interact and have conversations with those that can speak, because we certainly have some who don’t have language skills (as far as students go). But the interaction and the ability to follow the focus of treatment plans is key.

I hear you using the word “engage” a lot. Has engagement traditionally been a problem for someone in that role?

Yeah, sometimes people just take a job for the sake of a job and may not be as interested in interacting with the client. So you might see them on their cell phone, texting, kind of leaving things, letting them naturally occur. We don’t want that.

We want the staff to be engaged with the student. What’s going on? Do you want to play Monopoly? Is it time for a shower? That’s why we have them here—to talk and communicate and get to know the children. This group is incredibly engaged and they try. They try so hard.

What are your hopes for the program?

My hope is that we will inspire other organizations to try to do the same thing. But let’s work together to help the immigrant and refugee population to be successful and integrate into our communities. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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