How Catholic Charities Helps Immigrant Children in This Time of Crisis

Posted on June 18, 2018 by Catholic Charities Admin  |  Share

Pilot Program Taps into Play

Children fleeing violence and economic hardship arrive alone or are separated from their families on our borders. As they seek asylum and reunification with their families, many find themselves at Catholic Charities’ Immigrant and Refugee Services for help. Here we offer not only concrete services, but also compassion and support. Below, Brittney Wilcox, who works with the International Center of Catholic Charities Community Services, shares her first-hand experience about how we leverage our staff’s skills, talents, knowledge, and resources to provide innovative education programs for unaccompanied minors in New York.


By Brittney Wilcox

International Center of Catholic Charities Community Services–NY

You never know what might spark a child’s imagination or put her at ease. Sometimes that means coloring quietly together, concentrating to complete a puzzle of the United States, or making paper airplanes. Other times that means a dynamic game of Pictionary or Simón Dice (AKA Simon Says). Our time with the unaccompanied immigrant children who visit Catholic Charities for legal support is intended to be playful, fun, and light. It’s a chance for them to soak up the care and attention of our volunteers and enjoy being a kid.

To transform our office into a child-friendly space, the Unaccompanied Minors Program and the International Center started a pilot program for kids ages 17 and under to feel comfortable and keep them engaged as they visit for legal orientation and screenings. We provide weekly activities to help the children build confidence and social-emotional skills while learning new vocabulary in a safe, warm, and engaging environment. 

Sessions are led by a team of trained bilingual volunteers recruited from the International Center’s adult student population. To respond to a wide range of ages, interests, skills, and comfort levels, we present a variety of structured and informal activities each week.

Our 90-minute sessions are designed with three goals in mind:

     1. Create a safe, welcoming, inclusive space.

Children who feel safe, cared for, and supported are better able to learn. Our volunteers provide social and emotional care during activities, create opportunities for children to participate and lead, and respect their choice to join group games or engage in an independent activity.

     2. Engage the children in age-appropriate games and activities.

Why games? Games are fun; accessible to all ages, backgrounds, and language; and educational. Games allow us to include everyone and help them feel comfortable and safe during their visit. The children are always supportive of one another, and games give them a chance to work together in teams, encourage each other to try something new, and sometimes discover a hidden talent among their peers.

     3. Give the children opportunities to practice new vocabulary and develop social-emotional skills.

Through games and playful activities, we help the children feel more confident with verbal expression. The activities are led in Spanish, and we casually introduce simple English vocabulary, such as greetings and names for familiar foods, objects, and animals. When they can introduce themselves or remember the names of their favorite foods in English, the children feel accomplished and more motivated to participate. They laugh when words are the same in both languages—pizza is always a favorite—and our volunteers have a chance to learn new terms from the children as well.

Through all of our activities, we model and encourage the children to practice important social-emotional skills like managing emotions, problem-solving, building confidence, relating to peers, and self-awareness.

Though I cannot speak to changes in their lives outside of our office, within one session we can see a transformation in the disposition of a child. When our volunteers arrive, many of the children are timid and hesitant to participate. By the end of the session, most children are laughing while making silly gestures during a game of Simón Dice  or deeply engaged in a search for hidden pictures on a page.

Providing opportunities for play may seem inconsequential when so many other basic needs are pressing. But play is integral to a child’s development at all ages and can offer vital psychosocial support for children who have experienced trauma. Paired with supportive interactions with caring adults, play can nurture resilience and create a sense of belonging and hope.

Special Summer Program: Our Terra Firma Youth Summer English Program

In addition to providing games with the Unaccompanied Minors Program, the International Center is collaborating with Terra Firma—Catholic Charities’ innovative medical-legal partnership with Montefiore Medical Center serving unaccompanied minors—to support resilience for immigrant youth through our fourth annual Summer English Program.

This program builds confidence and improves English language skills through creative activities and instruction. Through two-hour English language sessions three days per week, our program helps ease the students' transition to the U.S. and supports their success in NYC schools.

This year’s theme is “Exploring New York.” Over the course of eight weeks, youth will explore the city from the classroom and beyond through weekly topics including music, transportation, money, food, and more. Two days per week, our classroom teacher and volunteer leaders will provide English language instruction and activities focusing on conversation practice. On the third day, teaching artists from ASTEP—a local arts education organization—will lead curriculum-aligned creative activities for youth to continue practicing English and strengthen social-emotional skills. The program will culminate in a special graduation and portfolio presentation, celebrating the learning and achievements of participating youth.

As the national conversation surrounding unaccompanied minors and their families escalates, it’s a privilege to work with an organization at the forefront of welcoming and addressing the needs of these children, where learning and play are integrated with other services, and where education is valued as a resource in times of crisis.