By: Justin Powell and Melissa Pearson
Benjamin Franklin said, “Out of adversity comes opportunity.” This was the case in 2010 when the United States was in the midst of the Great Recession. At that time, Youthlinc was quite a bit smaller than it is now, including having only 5 Service Year teams, a small Local Service Directory, and the Young Humanitarian Award. Youthlinc leadership at that time was worried about how the Recession would affect volunteers’ ability to travel on international service trips. So Youthlinc looked inward and asked, “What can we do more here at home?”
Real Life was born from that question through the visionary leadership of Ellie Seaborn, a Youthlinc employee at the time. She had been volunteering with refugee youth at Hser Ner Moo Center and knew that one, there was little support for that demographic at the time, and two, as Youthlinc’s Service Year program was growing, there was an opportunity to organize a local service program to utilize our many volunteers each year. Ellie suggested Youthlinc focus on the refugee teens, who were generally overlooked by programs for resettled refugees.
Through the collaboration of Ellie Seaborn and Domoina Kendell with Promise of South Salt Lake, Real Life began working with refugees at Hser Ner Moo Center. Real Life has been growing and improving ever since.
After a landmark grant from Synchrony Bank in 2014 and through a wonderful partnership agreement with Promise South Salt Lake, Real Life made a leap from two sites to five during the 2014-2015 year, in addition to a site in Provo overseen by Brenda Hall, who was a Board member at the time. Through additional community partnerships, Real Life added three additional sites during the 2015-2016 year and four additional sites during the 2016-2017 year.
Currently, Real Life partners with Promise South Salt Lake, Umoja Generation, Project Access, Refugee and Immigrant Center – Asian Association of Utah, Salt Lake City School District, and Granite School District. Real Life is providing afterschool support at twelve locations this year, some in person and some virtually due to the pandemic. Real Life provides meaningful opportunities for refugee and immigrant youth to practice and develop skills to make them more successful after high school, including job readiness, college readiness, language and communication development, financial literacy, and interpersonal skills. Real Life students and volunteers also have lots of fun celebrating each other’s cultures, going on field trips, and creating friendships.
Real Life is serving 400+ students and 100+ volunteers during the 2020-2021 school year.
As we look to the future, we again look at the quote from Benjamin Franklin about creating opportunity out of adversity. Even with the ongoing pandemic, there are many opportunities before us to improve and enlarge our impact in the local community. We have been approached by multiple community organizations to provide Real Life programming at additional sites and schools. Paramount is the opportunity to advance the building of our new community center in Murray. This center will allow Real Life to reach additional families that do not have access to a community space or afterschool programming. The pandemic has shined a light on the disparities of opportunity for communities of color and lower socio-economic status families.
Real Life recognizes the urgency of these challenges. We have adapted our curriculum to go virtual, have created additional curriculum relevant to the time, and have plans ready to set into motion as the end of the pandemic is in sight. There will be more demand than ever before to have a space where healthy and productive community can flourish and where students who face unique challenges can come for additional support.
Youthlinc is currently raising money for and building a community center in Murray. The center will include expansion to additional youth, new adult-focused programming, a computer lab so that technology education can be expanded, and will allow us to serve an additional 200 refugee and immigrant individuals each year.
We are working with Murray City School District, Murray City, our many partners, and the Youthlinc Board of Directors to make this project a reality. We anticipate opening the doors in 2022 and nurturing Real Life forward for the next generation of refugees resettling in Utah.