United Way of Central Carolinas’ Unite Charlotte works with small, grassroots organizations to improve racial equity and increase social capital. Since launching Unite Charlotte in 2016 in response to the civic unrest in Charlotte, United Way has invested nearly $900,000 in organizations including Refugee Support Services.
With nearly 17,000 refugees resettling in Charlotte over the past 20 years, Rachel Humphries saw a need for helping these newly-arrived residents successfully adapt to their new home.
While teaching English as a second language at Central Piedmont Community College, Rachel had refugee students coming to her with needs beyond language barriers like transportation for work.
“I started connecting people with stuff and then I realized what people really need is a culture coach, or a friend,” she said. “Someone who they could ask all of the questions to like where to go if the tires on their car go flat, or how to sort and read through their mail.”
Rachel started Refugee Support Services in 2006 to aid refugees – legal, permanent residents – in learning self-sufficiency skills in a way that empowers them to thrive in American society and build intercultural relationships. The greatest population of refugees in Charlotte come from Bhutan, Burman, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with about one-third of all refugees coming from countries outside these four.
“Getting (refugees) to see that this is their community and they can take advantage of it and access it is just part of building their social capital,” said Rachel, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Then they extend that to their families and neighbors.”
For two consecutive years, Refugee Support Services has been a grantee of Unite Charlotte, a program led by United Way of Central Carolinas that provides early funding for local nonprofits and grassroots organizations focused on improving racial equity and increasing social capital.
Refugee Support Services provides a general help center, a children’s pre-literacy program, a women’s art group, weekly food distribution and a cultural engagement program called Fruitful Friends. The voluntary program connects refugees with American families who help them better navigate the city and culture, walking alongside them in their new phase of life.
There are currently about 110 American families in the program who meet with the refugee families at least two hours every week to spend time together and create a friendship. The nonprofit asks families to commit to the program for at least one year.
“But we have people who have been Fruitful Friends for years and they’ve integrated their families with each other,” Rachel said.
As the number of people served by Refugee Support Services increases every year, the nonprofit has been able to grow its programming, volunteer training and literacy workshops with funding from Unite Charlotte. This year, the grant money will allow the nonprofit to expand the Fruitful Friends program by hiring a dedicated coordinator.
Theresa Matheny is filling the new role and matching more families with refugees and providing more robust training for American families volunteering through the program.
“I think the impact that the United Way Unite Charlotte grant is having is bringing social capital, hope, encouragement and support to these families,” Theresa said. “We try to make sure that all of our programs have some sort of education piece around them and that it’s a hand up, not a hand out.”
The beauty of the Fruitful Friends program is that it joins cultures that might not otherwise find a way to be together and engages refugees in their communities, Rachel said.
“We saw a need in the community and we started meeting it. We started putting people together one by one in friendship,” she said. “We have grown over the years from just putting one person with a bicycle.”