Kentwood — It was an action-packed card game filled with laughter and conversation in Swahili between Francois Mwabi, Jerome Menyo and fifth-graders Lilianne Uwimpuhwe, Rebeka Tuyishime and Clever Musoni in a Glenwood Elementary School hallway.
As cards were played and hands were dealt, it became clear that the whole group knew the African game well. It’s one of many things the refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo — adults and children alike — have in common.
Both in their 70s, Francois and Jerome are “refugee grandparents” to Glenwood students, including many who are newcomers to the U.S.
“I come here to play with the kids and help them out,” said Francois in Swahili, interpreted by third-grader Joyce Igihoz. “I talk to them a lot and I ask them how they are.”
They devote their weekdays to volunteering. From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, they read with students, head out for recess (they are known for their jumping jacks) and serve as listening ears for students who speak the same languages as they do.
“We love being here because of the environment and the students who study here. The teachers like us,” said Jerome through an interpreting service. “I help students who speak my language. I enjoy it and they enjoy it too.”
A True School Community
The grandpas both came to the U.S. with children and grandchildren several years ago after living in a refugee camp. They now live in the neighborhood and found their way to Glenwood through Senior Neighbors’ AmeriCorps senior and refugee programs. Senior Neighbors offers volunteer opportunities for seniors including in local elementary schools.
“I love them for helping new students,” wrote Lilianne on Google Translate following the card game.
Francois, who worked as a welder in Congo and speaks Swahili, Lingala and French, helps out in a fourth-grade class. Jerome, who worked as a farmer and youth pastor and speaks Kinyarwandan, volunteers in a first-grade classroom.
‘It was important to me to really advocate for volunteers who were representative of our students.’— Maddie Rhoades, KSSN community school coordinator
They can communicate in those languages with a large portion of the school population. Of 447 students at Glenwood, 117 are English Learners. Kinyarawandan- and Swahili-speaking students are the biggest population of English Learners students, said Maddie Rhoades, Kent School Services Network coordinator.
About 180 students are multilingual. Many Swahili-speaking newcomers arrived in recent months. Two of Jerome’s own grandchildren attended the school last year.
Jerome can often be found in the hallway working with students on the school’s EL curriculum.
“They are learning English alongside the students,” Rhoades said.
Joyce, the third-grade interpreter
Glenwood third-grader Joyce Igihoz often serves as an interpreter for the school’s refugee grandparents, Francois and Jerome.
From Congo, she speaks Swahili, Kinyarawandan and English.
Joyce said she wants to be a teacher when she grows up, and she is eager to welcome newcomer students when they arrive at Glenwood.
“I like helping people that need help that speak a different language. If I speak the same language as them, I can help them out.”
She’s gotten to know Francois well.
“Anytime he sees me he likes giving me a hug and he says ‘hi.’ In second grade, I used to read with him, and I would teach him how to read and we would play games in the library.”
International and Intergenerational Connection
While connecting with Senior Neighbors, Rhoades said she had a “lightbulb moment” to seek volunteers from the agency’s refugee program.
“There is such a need for mentorship in the building,” she explained. “It was important to me to really advocate for volunteers who were representative of our students.”
Francois and Jerome started volunteering last January.
“It has been phenomenal. Both of them are so fun and caring and loving,” Rhoades said. “On that larger scale it has been so meaningful to see so many of our kids who speak Swahili and Kinyarawandan all the sudden light up.”
Students learn that being multilingual is an asset, she said. “This is a skill set that is so amazing and something they should be proud of, and … they get the possibility to share that with the grandpas.”
Francois and Jerome are so popular that teachers have to create schedules for students to spend time with them. They’ve also clicked with parents, who are excited to meet elders who speak their language.
As for Joyce, the young interpreter has gotten to know Francois well.
“Anytime he sees me he gives me a hug and he says ‘hi.’ In second grade I used to read with him, and I would teach him how to read and we would play games in the hallway.”
Rhoades is all for more grandparents in district schools. “I would love to see a grandparent in every school that represents every single one of our kids.”
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