Meet Orlie Weitzman, one of the 10 outstanding kids selected to be a TFK Kid Reporter this school year. Orlie is 12 years old and lives in Chicago, Illinois. In her spare time, she likes to read, write stories and articles, watch movies, and play with her siblings. Orlie says her name means “my light” in Hebrew.
Finalists in the TFK Kid Reporter contest were judged on a number of factors. One of their assignments was to write an article about a hometown hero. Orlie’s story is about volunteers at a program for refugee families. You can read it below. We’ll be introducing the rest of the TFK Kid Reporter squad this month.
In a church hall on Chicago’s South Side, four girls and three boys giggle as they practice a dance routine. A boy does a flip while a girl performs a ballet move.
It’s a typical scene of children having fun, but these kids are anything but typical. None of them spoke English until recently. Some are from families that have fled wars, famine, and persecution. Several arrived in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
They are participants in a summer camp run by the Hyde Park Refugee Project, a grassroots organization of hometown heroes who help ease the resettlement process for refugee families. “They have had to leave everything they own behind,” Dorothy Pytel, the organization’s founder, told TIME for Kids. She helps coordinate hundreds of volunteers who aid families in finding housing, jobs, healthcare, education, child care, and transportation.
While advocacy groups help shape refugee policy, neighborhood volunteers are crucial in assisting new arrivals with day-to-day challenges. “Without local organizations, refugees would have a much harder time building a new life in the U.S.,” says Jims Porter of Refugee One, an Illinois resettlement agency.
As well as being fun, the camp helps refugee children sharpen their English. “We saw how the kids were struggling in school,” says Linda Pope, a camp director. “We started this program so they wouldn’t lose their English language skills over the summer.”
The project began in 2016, when Pytel read an article about refugees. It inspired her to gather a group of Hyde Parkers to help settle a Syrian refugee family in their neighborhood. She recalls picking up the family at the airport. “It was an emotional welcome,” Pytel says. “But they were very relieved to see that there was a group of people waiting for them.”
The group has helped eight families and was expecting another this month. “It’s been amazing to see the growth of the families and the milestones they’ve achieved,” Pytel says.
Back at the summer camp, the dancers are taking a well-deserved break. “This is my favorite class,” says a girl who arrived in the U.S. in 2018. “Dance helps me express myself.”
“The project is one of the best things that has happened to Hyde Park in the last decade,” Saba Ayman-Nolley says. She is president of the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council, one of the group’s main donors. She says that the Hyde Park Refugee Project’s work “not only helps the refugees but also strengthens our community and makes it a better place.”
While the project volunteers are heroes, so are the refugees they serve, notes Kailey Love of Refugees International. It’s a humanitarian organization based in Washington, D.C. “Our refugee neighbors are heroes,” she says. “They bring their stories of perseverance and resilience. We can learn from them.”