Kathleen Flores’ typical day at The Refugee Center, formerly known as East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center, starts with answering the phone. “I'll speak English first,” she tells me. “Then if they can’t do that and I can detect what language they speak, I’ll transfer them.” Kathleen, 18 and a student at the University of Illinois, is bilingual in English and Spanish herself, but The Refugee Center serves populations in seven languages, including English, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Russian, Cantonese, and Mandarin, and if needed, can arrange for services beyond those seven.
As a new arrival to the Champaign-Urbana area, Kathleen started volunteering at The Refugee Center only a few months ago for a class she’s taking, but already sees herself continuing throughout her time as a student. Her passion for the work she does shines through as she tells me about The Refugee Center.
Although she does have Puerto Rican heritage, Flores tells me that she mainly learned Spanish from her childhood nanny, Lupe. She credits Lupe, a Mexican immigrant who left behind family and country in 2000, with giving her a lifelong passion for empowering and helping immigrants. “I see Lupe in all of the people I help,” she says. “And it means so much.”
“Even in a small town like Champaign-Urbana, there are still many, many people just walking into The Refugee Center every day for help,” Flores says. The people who walk through the doors of center are as diverse as their needs. Flores recounts that one morning she might be helping an middle-aged women learn road signs to pass her driving test, and the next hour she might be helping a teen mother her own age fill out the confusing and time-consuming paperwork needed to receive WIC and SNAP benefits. Another day might bring someone in who has been arrested and needs legal help. Some people just want to learn English. All are eager to be helped, Flores says.
“It’s so rewarding to be bilingual and able to communicate with people in the area who come in,” Flores says. “The one-on one connection is amazing. The staff and volunteers work side-by-side and it’s an awesome opportunity to learn.”
Although this isn’t her first volunteer experience — she taught English in Nicaragua and helped with after-school tutoring in high school — Kathleen says that The Refugee Center is a valuable experience to her because she learns so much about legal and social issues straight from the immigrants and refugees themselves, as well as having the opportunity to work alongside staff who are eager to teach her how to help and then allow her to work directly with the clients for hands-on experience.
The Refugee Center was founded in 1980 by Vietnamese refugees in the Champaign-Urbana area to fill the gaps in services that many new immigrants experienced as they transitioned to American culture. Since then, it has grown significantly, and very recently has moved from their longtime location on Birch Street in Urbana to share a building with Champaign-Urbana Public Health at 201 West Kenyon Road in Champaign. The Refugee Center is funded in large part by community donations, but they also receive support from Champaign County United Way, the Champaign County Mental Health Board, private grants and donors, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
If you’re interested in learning more about becoming a volunteer for The Refugee Center, visit their Facebook page or stop by for a visit during business hours, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.