Manchester — The newest workers at an intensive residential treatment center for children in New Hampshire are still learning English, but they bring plenty of empathy to the job.
Easterseals NH has struggled for years to hire workers for the Manchester facility it runs for children with severe neurological, psychological and behavioral challenges. Its solution is a training program tailored specifically to immigrants and refugees that combines English language instruction with first aid, crisis intervention and other skills.
Eleven people completed the inaugural seven-week program in November and another 12 are enrolled now. Many participants spent time working or living in refugee camps in war-torn countries before arriving in the U.S.
“I was just amazed at the richness of experience that everyone brought to the table, whether it was education or practical experience,” said Nancy Skar, a human resources manager with Easterseals. While the English language instruction makes the training more costly for Easterseals, she expects the organization’s investment to pay off by producing long-term, dedicated workers.
“You can hear it,” she said. “Their hearts are in this work.”
Shabani Asmani said the work is both challenging and rewarding. Asmani, 50, is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he worked at a refugee camp serving those who fled the genocide in neighboring Rwanda in the 1990s. Some of the youngest victims were orphaned children who’d had arms, legs or toes hacked off, he said.
He thinks of them when he’s playing games with the children at his new job, or helping them transition between activities.
“When the kids today are in crisis, sometimes tears come into my eyes,” he said.
Ombeni Kasongo, 24, lived in a refugee camp in Uganda for three years before arriving in the U.S. in October. Also from eastern Congo, he described coaching a soccer team for street children in his home country, and compared settling their squabbles to the work he’ll be doing when he finishes his Easterseals training. He said watching other workers calm down a child whose anger was escalating was scary, but also inspiring.
“As a coach, I would come and see what happened and how to make them feel good, one to another, so they may continue to play,” he said. “When observing today, the way they were de-escalating that kid, I was just remembering the way you have to talk to someone who’s upset. If you come to someone and you’re upset, it can’t happen. You need to figure out another way to make them feel comfortable.”
Empathy is key in dealing with the facility’s children, said Jennifer Paronto, director of residential services. But the new workers also are teaching them about diversity, she added.
“It’s important for kids we work with to understand that there is life outside of New Hampshire and to be familiar with different cultures and traditions,” she said.
Paronto said the program is working well. While the language barrier can sometimes pose a problem, other staffers have been quick to jump in and help. And the current class of participants has been paired with mentors who offer ongoing support. When Easterseals advertised the first training session, about 15 people expressed interest in joining. Before the second class began, there were more than 50.