Hyde Park Herald covers Refugee Project recruitment effort

Hyde Park Herald recently interviewed Penny Visser, co-director of Hyde Park Refugee Project, and long-time volunteer Susan Augustine about the Refugee Project’s efforts to recruit more volunteers.

“All of the refugee families we’re working with recognize the vital importance of education for their children, and they are grateful to the support our community is providing,” said Penny Visser, co-director of Hyde Park Refugee Project. “We’ve partnered with some of the local schools the children attend, and we’d love to expand those partnerships and provide more volunteers to work in the classrooms.”

Read the story>


Photo credit: 2017 WNPR-FM

Calling all volunteers!

Want to make a difference in a refugee’s life? Hyde Park Refugee Project invites you learn more about our volunteer-based organization and opportunities to get involved.

We will be hosting a special information session on Tuesday, October 16, 6:30 p.m. at Augustana Church, 5500 S. Woodlawn in Hyde Park.

The purpose will be to orient newcomers and provide an update on our progress and plans. We kindly ask that you RSVP for the program so we can gauge attendance.

Please email hydeparkrefugeeproject@gmail.com to let us know you’re coming.

Thanks. Hope to see you there!

Join us for a special tour of Doctors Without Border’s Forced From Home Exhibit on September 26


6:56 PM and 7:04 PM
Richard J. Daley Center
50 W Washington St
Chicago, IL

Join us for special guided tours of ‘Forced From Home‘ Doctors Without Borders’ interactive, behind the headlines exhibit that’s coming to Chicago’s Daley Plaza Sept 23-30.  Hyde Park Refugee Project has reserved space for two private guided tours on Wednesday, September 26 for HPRP volunteers and supporters. The tours begin promptly at 6:56 p.m. and 7:04 p.m., respectively and last approximately one hour.

Guided by experienced Doctors Without Borders aid workers, you’ll travel through a 10,000-square-foot space designed to convey the challenges facing a person forced to flee. You’ll also learn about the humanitarian aid Doctors WIthout Borders provides along the way.  Visitors experience virtual reality and 360˚ video, and interact with materials gathered from refugee camps, sea rescue missions, and emergency medical projects around the world.

FORCED FROM HOME tours are free, fully accessible, and take roughly one hour to complete. If you can’t join us on Wednesday, you can catch the exhibit any time during its run. Families are welcome, however the content is best suited to children ages 12+.

Registration is required. Please arrive by 6:50 p.m. and you will be placed in groups on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Enriching summer ahead!

This spring, volunteers have been busy making our organization more efficient and developing a new summer enrichment pilot program for refugee families that we hope to launch this summer with your help.

Here’s a quick update of what we’ve been up to:

  • Created a formal employment team and recruited seven volunteers to help find sufficient employment for the Congolese family that we began assisting in December. The family has several adult children. The employment team is also helping our Syrian families find supplemental employment to help make ends meet.
  • Placed nine volunteers at Kenwood Academy to work as classroom assistants with English Language Learners during the school day.
  • Created a formal volunteer intake system that we will implement soon (online volunteer application and background checks will be done directly by the Hyde Park Refugee Project)
  • Welcomed three interns from the Public Church Program at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago this spring. These graduate students bring sustained energy and are directly responsible for some major organizational growth this spring.

Now we need your help!

This summer the Hyde Park Refugee Project is piloting a summer enrichment program for the families supported by the Hyde Park Refugee Project. Your generous support is needed to cover the costs of summer enrichment activities that will help children and young adults in our community whose lives have been disrupted by war and conflict. As this Wall Street Journal article points out, children and teens that come to the US as refugees have unique educational challenges.

The Hyde Park Refugee Project has a vision to provide a two-week English language immersion program in mid-summer that will instruct, integrate, and enrich the lives of parents and children alike. We are also in discussions with local sports, arts and other non-profits to provide additional summer enrichment opportunities for the many refugee children living in Hyde Park.  If anyone is interested in volunteering with us this summer or is associated with a local organization that might be willing to donate or give reduced enrichment opportunities this summer, please contact us at hydeparkrefugeeproject@gmail.com.

To make an online donation to help fund summer enrichment for our community’s refugee family, please click on the DONATE button at the top of the page.

We thank you for your ongoing support!


Cub Scouts come through for the Refugee Project

“Helping others,” a major tenet of The Scout Oath, was demonstrated recently by Cub Scout Pack 3599, a 45-member group of six to 12 year-olds from Chicago’s South Side. The Pack donated several boxes of office supplies to Hyde Park Refugee Project through Augustan Lutheran Church of Hyde Park, the Pack’s Charter Sponsor since 2016.

My office was relocating and we had excess office supplies,” says Cub Master James Roger Poueymirou. “Augustana has been a great to the Scout Pack, so we wanted to give back,” said the 40-year resident of Hyde Park.  

In turn, Augustana Church administrative coordinator Elizabeth McCreless, with the approval of church pastor Nancy Goede, suggested the supplies go instead to Hyde Park Refugee Project that holds weekly meetings, ESL tutoring, and other refugee assistance programs at the church. Run entirely by volunteers, the Refugee Project relies solely on community goodwill and donations to further its mission. Poueymirou generously agreed.  

On the first, third and fifth Friday of each month from 6:45 – 8:15 p.m, Lions, Tigers, Wolves, Bears and Webelos meet at Augustana to engage in service projects and participate in outdoor activities from bird watching in Jackson Park’s Bob-o-link Field to hiking, camping  and neighborhood clean-up projects. “Dens” are divided by grade and include scouts from a potpourri of backgrounds and religions who attend Ray School, St. Thomas the Apostle, The Ancona School, University of Chicago Laboratory Schools and other area schools.

“Scouting is about character building, leadership training, outdoors and having fun,” says Poueymirou. “If they learn to be good citizens and work with trusted adults, these are all positives for young boys.”

This September, girls also will be able to join. “It’s all about inclusion.  We want to make sure that we’re giving opportunities to those that want to participate. It’s also the right thing to do.”

For more information about local Scouting units, please visit Scouting Spirit!, a new column in the Hyde Park Herald written by Cubmaster Poueymirou.


Pictured above: Roger Poueymirou, Pack 3599 Cub Master, and Elizabeth McCreless, Augustana Church administrative coordinator

Literacy Works to offer 3/14 tutor training on the Refugee Experience

The Refugee Experience:
Background Information for Teachers and Tutors
Wednesday, March 14, 2018
6:00 – 8:30 pm
Indo American Center
6328 N. California Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659

Are you a tutor, or do you want to become one and work with students from refugee backgrounds? Literacy Works will offer a training session on Wednesday, March 14, 6-8:30 p.m.  Hyde Park Refugee Project volunteers can attend this training for free.  Just mention our fiscal agent, the Hyde Park & Kenwood Interfaith Council.  

The training is designed to give you a deeper understanding of what refugee students may have gone through and the realities of their life right now in order to support them more effectively as a teacher or tutor

Discussion points will include:

  • The long journey from fleeing one’s home to being resettled in the US
  • What a resettlement agency does, in detail, including housing, job development, financial support, counseling, and more
  • The wide range of refugee populations currently settled in Chicago and the unique challenges they face
  • Cultural adjustment issues to be aware of
  • What problems you can help with vs. which should be addressed by a manager or the student’s resettlement caseworker

This training is appropriate for volunteer tutors and staff.


Helen Sweitzer has been working with refugees for about 15 years. She started as a volunteer ESL teacher, and is now the Director of Resettlement at RefugeeOne, overseeing case management, employment, Women’s
Empowerment Program, ESL, cultural orientation, and intensive and medical case management programs.


Trainings are free for Literacy Works’ members. $20 for non-member agencies.

To register, please email register@litworks.org with your name, email address, phone number, and title of training. Please indicate that you are affiliated with the Hyde Park & Kenwood Interfaith Council and also indicate if you are a volunteer, teacher, or other staff member.

For any questions, please contact Literacy Works at register@litworks.org.


Volunteers, donations needed for recently resettled Congolese family

Volunteers and donations needed for recently resettled family from the Congo

Through our collaboration with local public schools, the Hyde Park Refugee Project became aware of a family recently resettled from the Congo that is in need.  Many of you are already familiar with this family, as you responded with generosity to our request for blankets and comforters  in December.  

Over the past month, our volunteers have gotten to know several members of this family of 14.  We have been busy developing a comprehensive response to help the family find its footing on its journey towards independence.  We have already helped one family member get a job! But there are several family members, including the father and several adult children, that are very eager to find either full-time or part-time employment.  

Now we are reaching out to you for your support.  

Here are the ways that you can help:

Providing employment leads

Our volunteers will follow up on all possible job leads.  The best leads are specific employers or businesses with a current opening (that ideally provides health benefits) or an employer you have a relationship with that might be open to a new hire. General job suggestions tend to drain limited volunteer time.  We are also looking for employment mentors who will assist the family through the complicated job application process.

Please contact Diane Salk dmsalk@mac.com with job leads or to find out how to become an employment mentor.

Donating household items

The Congolese family has requested a number of items for their kids and home.  Please click here to sign up to donate specific items.


There are immediate opportunities to provide homework assistance and English tutoring for the Congolese family.  Beyond helping the family at home, the local public schools are excited  that the Refugee Project has begun to place volunteers directly in schools. The options include:

  • tutoring at school (daytime and after school)
  • tutoring in the family’s home (evenings and weekends)

To find out more about how to get involved in tutoring, contact Kate Hannigan at katehannigan@gmail.com.

Providing early childhood enrichment

The Refugee Project began hosting a free three-times-a-week class for English Language Learners at Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park.  Families bring along non-school-age children.  Children receive enrichment in a nursery while the adults go to “school” down the hall.  We are seeking volunteers to help with this program. Individuals with young children are welcome to volunteer as well.

To find out how to get involved, please contact Linda Pope devinlinda@yahoo.com.

Donate to family emergency fund

Your financial contributions will help cover emergency needs such as rental assistance, food assistance, bus passes, etc.  Our goal is to raise $7,000.  Any financial donations beyond this level will help provide additional resources for an English Language Learners class and an early childhood enrichment program for non-school-age children for the refugee families.  The volunteers who lead this class were trained in August 2017 by Literacy Works. This training was made possible by your generous donations to the Refugee Project last year.

Please click here to contribute to the family’s emergency fund.

Your generosity has already helped two Syrian refugee families gain a foothold in our country and community.  Your continued support of the Hyde Park Refugee Project will enable our new Congolese family to move a step closer to its goal of a brighter future.

Thank you!

Urgent! Special Request for Blankets

Recently, one of the public schools we work with identified an under-served family from the Democratic Republic of Congo living in the neighborhood that urgently needs support. When asked about their immediate needs, they requested blankets or comforters for two adults and six children (ages 8-15).
If you have a new or gently used blanket or comforter that you would like to donate, please email us at hydeparkrefugeeproject@gmail.com and you will be contacted about where to drop off your donation.  We hope to collect six full- or twin-sized and two queen-sized blankets or comforters as quickly as possible.
We’ll keep you posted about any future requests.
As always, you’re generosity is much appreciated!

Book club provides Thanksgiving dinner to refugee families

A few days before Thanksgiving, while most people were deep into preparations, Natalie Tessler was thinking about who might benefit from a free meal.  

While talking with a friend whose children, like hers, attend the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Tessler learned about the Syrian families served by the Hyde Park Refugee Project.  Her friend’s daughter, a high schooler who tutors some of the refugee children in her spare time, often spoke about the daily struggles the families faced.

“It kind of struck me, as we were planning for Thanksgiving, how nice it would be to make these people feel more welcome,” said Tessler.  “We usually donate Thanksgiving dinner to someone every year. This year felt like the ideal situation.  All this talk about refugees being a threat to our community really bothers me and, I think, a lot of people in our community.”

She reached out to the Refugee Project’s tutor coordinator Kate Hannigan who identified four families that would very much welcome the gesture.  That evening, Tessler met with her book club and shared her idea. Without hesitation, all eight of her friends offered to chip-in so that each of the families could experience Thanksgiving.

On Thanksgiving morning in a car loaded with food, Tessler and her family members delivered turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and pies to the refugee families.  Each time, they were greeted by excited kids and invitations for tea and coffee.

“All the volunteers were so excited and touched that Natalie and her book club stepped up to take on the holiday,” said Hannigan. “The consensus from the moms was that Thanksgiving was fantastic! They liked the food, and the kids especially loved the pie desserts.” 

“I believe that there’s a huge appetite in our community to lend a hand to refugees and others in need, but many simply don’t know where to go to find opportunities to help,” said Tessler. “I’m grateful that the Hyde Park Refugee Project had the information and ability to make this happen.”

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Hyde Parkers ‘jump in’ to supply winter gear for Syrian families, neighbors in need

Thanks to the generous donations of scores of Hyde Park residents, four Syrian families and several disadvantaged community members received much-needed warm weather gear just in time for winter. The family friendly event took place on Wednesday and Saturday of last week at Augustana Lutheran Church in Hyde Park.

When the call for the clothing drive went out earlier this month, donations poured in filling two large rooms with dozens of winter coats, snow pants, boots, sweaters and other apparel ranging in size from infant to men’s XXL. In addition to the church, other designated drop off locations included KAM Isaiah Israel and University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

“Our children grow out of clothes so quickly and typically only need them for a year or two,” said Dorothy Pytel, co-director of the Hyde Park Refugee Project.  “It’s nice to have items that are still in good enough shape to give to families who might otherwise have to spend a good portion of their income to purchase.”

In addition to the two Syrian families sponsored by the Refugee Project, two other families were invited to participate.  The families, of five and six respectively, also arrived in Chicago about a year ago and were referred to the Refugee Project by friends and acquaintances. They originally had come to the US through World Relief, which provides three months’ support to resettling refugees.

Last Wednesday’s drive took the place in lieu of the regularly scheduled weekly adult ESL classes that include a paid instructor and tutors made possible by community response to an earlier appeal.  Since the kids had the day off from school, volunteers brought in a bouncy house, generously donated by Hyde Park Latter Day Saints Chapel. While moms combed through clothes, several volunteers, including those who normally teach ESL to the adults, kept an eye on the kids, both refugee and volunteer children, who who had a blast in the bouncy house and making crafts in the nursery.

The following Saturday, guests who regularly attend the church’s monthly community breakfast were invited to select whatever they wanted from the racks and tables still brimming with coats, hats, sweaters and warm clothing. Remaining items were donated to local charity organizations.

“We are so thankful for the community’s incredible response to the drive,” said Pytel who organized the drive. “Within the span of a few weeks, we were able to supply 24 Syrian family members and more than a dozen of neighbors in need with enough winter gear to face the cold winter ahead.”

Photo of volunteer child in the bouncy house provided by her parent with permission.