Connect Centerville marks first-year success helping immigrants

A Centerville school initiative designed to increase engagement between residents and immigrant families called Connect Centerville recently celebrated its first year of operation.

The Heren Foundation, a charitable organization started by Fuyao Global Chairman Cho Tak Wong, donated $30,000 in July of 2018 to help get things up and running.

Host families and students said the program has been a success and hoped it continues. The first year of the launch included several events intended to bring the community together.

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The initiative also launched the Host Family Program in which newly arrived immigrant families were matched with Centerville families that were more established in the community.

“Families are encouraged to build relationships that best fit their needs, meeting at mutually convenient times throughout the year,” said Megan LeMaster, the English Language Learner (ELL) coach for Centerville City Schools.

She said the the last event for the group, held at Carillon Park on June 2, attracted nearly 80 host families and immigrant families.

“In Centerville, we’ve had an influx of new families from other countries over the past few years, so we wanted to put together something to welcome those recently arrived families,” LeMaster said.

Zhen Xiao and JinYun Xue, the parents of ninth-grade student Yuhan Xiao, said they are happy with how the Host Family Program has worked.

Their host family introduced JinYun to a mothers group that had weekly gatherings in which “we discussed parks, deals, flea markets, our hobbies, our faith, and most of all our kids.”

The mothers, to overcome the language barrier, installed Google translate on their phones, she said.

“They will slow down when we talk so I can understand and join the conversation. These gestures really touched my heart,” JinYun said.

Yuhan said he had similar interests with the kids in his host family.

“We all like listening to music, and we are all in the band,” Yuhan said. “We went to each other’s homes to hang out. Making friends through the host family helps me practice and improve my English. It also makes my life become more interesting.”

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Amy Bright said her family enjoyed the opportunity to reach out and be the host family for Yuhan Xiao.

“I can only imagine how hard it is to communicate and make friends in a new culture. We have loved the the opportunity to make new friends and help others,” Bright said. “I believe that efforts like this can do much more than just help one family, I believe it can help communities and cultures love, understand and appreciate each other more.”

Sophie Wen brought her family to Centerville from China. She has two boys, including a 17-year-old who will be a senior at Centerville High School this fall. The youngest is 5 and will start Kindergarten at Primary Village this fall.

Jeannette Horwitz, who is the director of the LEAP program (ESL) at Wright State, and her family played host to Wen’s family.

She came to Ohio 27 years ago as an immigrant from Sweden.

“I enjoy helping new immigrants navigate life here and giving back to the community in this way,” Horwitz said. “My family benefits from the friendship we’re developing with a family different from ours in that we get to experience new things together and broaden our horizons.”

She said helping someone with seemingly small things but things that are important to them to feel more comfortable is important.

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“It can be anything from explaining items on a restaurant menu — ‘what’s a BLT and what’s the difference between ranch, Italian and balsamic dressing?’ — to going shopping at Costco together,” Horwitz said.

Wen and Horwitz have children going into their senior year of high school and “talk a lot about … what comes along with that: preparing for ACT/SAT, visiting colleges, going to prom, graduation, etc. Cross-cultural connections like these are both eye-opening and meaningful for everyone involved.”

Wen said being a part of the Host Family Program has helped improve her English and become involved in local events.

“I have learned a lot from my host family about life and study. I am now studying American tax and law. Eventually, I will work in this field,” she explained.

Centerville Community Relations Specialist Sarah Swan said there are currently 215 students who have been identified as English Language Learners in the school district, and their families speak more than 30 different languages.

“The top four languages are Chinese, Arabic, a variety of Indian languages, and Spanish,” Swan said.

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