Check & Connect Assists Refugees in Minnesota

Publication date: 
November 15, 2019

ICI’s Check & Connect program is extending its reach. Under a two-year grant from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, C&C will help organizations serving refugees better track student performance, while also inspiring and supporting their families to obtain jobs and get involved in their new communities.

Speaking this fall as part of the University’s Courageous Conversations series, New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman suggested rapid globalization and technological advances can be uncomfortable, but if we listen respectfully to each other and act boldly, they can also be a catalyst for the kind of change the world needs most.

“Necessity is not just the mother of invention,” he said. “It’s also the mother of inclusion.”

Just a few miles from where Friedman spoke, a group of leaders from eight Minnesota organizations serving global refugees listened intently this month as Parmananda Khatiwoda shared his own moment of acting boldly.

As a resettlement programs specialist for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Khatiwoda and his colleagues had been searching for better ways to engage the state’s refugee families in their new communities. Rather than waiting to respond to the inevitable problems that can arise when families who have just experienced traumatic relocations from war-torn regions of the world try to adjust to a typical American school day, for example, Khatiwoda felt there must be a proactive way to resolve issues before they become crises that lead to students dropping out.

“These parents typically don’t understand what a strong voice parents have in their children’s education here,” he said. “And then, we thought if we could engage the parents initially through the children’s school, we may be able to help them see possibilities for their own skills and work. And we could see what barriers we can help them remove to reconstruct well-being for themselves, their families, and the Minnesota community.”

Khatiwoda discovered Check & Connect through relationships with colleagues in his graduate work at University of Minnesota and his work with Anne Marie Leland, community education director for Faribault Public Schools. A longstanding, evidence-based dropout prevention program now used in 45 states and internationally, ICI’s Check & Connect pairs students with trained mentors in a relationship that emphasizes accountability in student attendance, behavior and grades, but also understanding, support, and trust.

He soon connected with Eileen Klemm, C&C’s program director who is also, like Khatiwoda, working on a PhD in organizational leadership, policy, and development.

The colleagues and their respective teams at DHS and ICI worked on ways to adapt C&C’s core goal-setting framework and supportive encouragement methods to meet the unique needs of the entire refugee family. The result is a two-year DHS grant that will bring C&C to Minnesota organizations serving refugees.

“These organizations have strong family coaches, but they didn’t have a structure that was working to connect both students and families to the right services and opportunities,” said Klemm. Eventually, Khatiwoda introduced Klemm to Rachele King, state refugee coordinator for DHS, and the idea took shape. “Check & Connect has always had a component of family involvement, but the real customization was to not only do this for students but to help adults reach their educational and career goals,” Klemm said.

To help tailor the program, Ann Romine (pictured standing at left), national C&C trainer, consulted several ICI colleagues who develop training in self-determination models for goal planning and who work in English language learner environments.

At the gathering this month, Khatiwoda, Klemm, and Romine led organization leaders and future mentors through the details, getting their feedback on what will work for families and what needs to be tweaked before rollout.

“We’re here to share ideas that will shape the future,” said Girma Hassen, program coordinator for the Oromo Community of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Hassen and several others who participated in the planning session are immigrants or refugees themselves who can provide both a professional and personal perspective to inform the project and boost the likelihood of positive outcomes.

Warda Hussein, an employment counselor with Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association in Rochester, emphasized how important it is to create a supportive environment for parents as the entire family settles into life in Minnesota.

“A parent doesn’t have any peace if they are trying to work but their child is not doing well in school or there are a lot of absences,” she said. “She’ll begin to think she can’t work because her child is being sent home for fighting, for example. It affects everyone in the family.”

Other Minnesota organizations selected to implement the program include the Karen Organization of Minnesota, Avivo, Lakes & Prairies Community Action Partnership, Guadalupe Alternative Programs, Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, and Minnesota Council of Churches.

“We all have strengths,” said Khalif Hassan, a career developer with Avivo in St. Cloud who lived as a refugee in Kenya for more than 20 years before coming to the United States. “We just need to hear from someone, ‘Hey, you can do this.’”