WORCESTER, MA — Spring is a time of change and bloom and for many clients at Ascentria Care Alliance, this is their first experience with spring in America. To celebrate the milestone and welcome their growth, the company hosts an annual Spring Fling event for the unaccompanied refugee minors and the foster families who house them.
Saturday's event was held in the gym of the Saint Joan of Arc Parish in Worcester. Tables were covered with plastic, green sheets and potted plants in canisters sat in the center. Growth was this year's theme and an appropriate one, as many of the clients in the program are growing in ways they didn't imagine before, now that they're in a new country.
Ascentria Care Alliance is a nonprofit human/social service organization that is subcontracted by the State Department of Children and Families. The company as a whole deals with a variety of services including services for older adults, mental health and disabilities and children and families. But the Spring Fling is just for the unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) program.
Recruitment and retention specialist Colleen Schroth said while the program name specifies refugees, the program also welcomes asylees, unaccompanied minors and victims of human trafficking. Schroth added that the notion of minors is also loosely based, since many of the program clients are over 18. The cut off for the program is 22. Schroth said the largest population of clients has so far, come from Guatemala.
For clients like Skarlet, the Spring Fling is a way to get to know her new country. She came from Guatemala a little over a month ago and is getting ready to spend her 18th birthday in her new home. "I really like it so far, it's been nice," she said in Spanish. Like many others in the program, Skarlet came to the U.S. alone and doesn't have family nearby — her closest relative lives in Tennessee. When asked why she left her home in Guatemala, Skarlet said, "There were lots of reasons." Skarlet identifies as a woman, which caused issues both in her family and community back in Guatemala. "They didn't accept me — I saw there was nothing I could do there, no opportunities for me," she said. In her short time in America and in Ascentria's program, Skarlet has started to find acceptance and has big plans. "I'm studying now to become an accountant," she said matter of factly.
Not all of the program clients arrive alone. Guadalupe came to the U.S. from Mexico with her two-year-old daughter in January. Guadalupe is 18, like many of the clients in the program. Schroth said the reason many of the program clients are 18 and older is because Massachusetts is one of the few states that accepts unaccompanied refugee minors so close to their 18th birthday.
Guadalupe said in Spanish, she was having issues at home in Mexico, "I like it much better here. I feel safer for my daughter's sake, and I'm able to go back to high school now and know that my daughter is safe at daycare," she said, "The cold isn't something that I'm used to yet, but it's okay."
Ascentria's Spring Fling celebrates the growth on the part of the foster parents as much as the clients as well. Veteran foster parents attended alongside prospective ones. Antonia Nurirreza has been a foster parent for nine years with the unaccompanied refugee minor program and lived in Worcester for 14 years. Nurirreza said it's always been in her nature to take care of people and finds some relatability among her kids, coming from the Dominican Republic herself. Nurirreza said in Spanish, there's nothing she loves more than having a full house, "I grew up in a house with eight brothers, I always had a big family. But I only had one baby," she said. Now Nurirreza has had more than six children walk the halls of her home.
With music playing and clients lined up to try the food their case managers brought for the pot luck, a handful of prospective parents lined the outskirts of the room, mingling with clients and case managers when the opportunity arose. For Jenny Umana and Sebastian Ortiz, this event was a way to get a feel for what the clients are like after hearing so much about them and going through the foster care training and certification process.
"We're nervous but excited," the couple giggled, this would be their first experience with parenting. They said they were drawn to the program after seeing and hearing the news about immigrant children being separated from their families at the southern border. "It's just awful and we wanted to make a difference," they said. Umana reflected on her mother's plight as an immigrant from El Salvador, as her inspiration for applying. "A lot of these kids are our parent's age when they came to America," she said, "We want to help support them — we wouldn't be here today without those people."
In one corner of the room, a plastic tree stood with a bucket filled with pencils and paper inviting patrons to write one way they've grown in the past year and hang the note on a branch. By the end of the event, the tree was filled with notes that talked about starting dance classes, finishing school and making new friends. Senior Program Manager Ailish Donovan said clients appreciate the event, especially in today's political climate. "People think that kids don't catch on to what's happening but they do, they feel it," she said, but events like the Spring Fling serve as reminders for clients, that there are welcoming spaces.