In a Denver classroom, eager students learn the alphabet, colors, opposites, and numbers with help from cheerful posters on the wall. But the students are not young children enrolled in a typical school. Rather, the men and women come from Africa, and the classroom is part of the Colorado African Organization, a group that seeks to help Africans learn the skills they need to succeed in America while creating camaraderie among refugees and immigrants.
Success means getting a job that matches one’s abilities and living in a safe home, says Kit Taintor, the group’s executive director: “We are interested in that next step, as opposed to self-sufficiency.”
The Colorado African Organization was started in 2003 after a group of local African professionals met to discuss how they could make the transition to America easier for the next wave of Africans settling in Denver. (The group also works in a few other places in the state.)
Among the hardships for newcomers, many of whom have fled famine, war, or both and lived for years in perilous refugee camps: learning a new language, helping their children adapt to school, and finding a well-paying job. The assistance that the group provides goes beyond English, computer, and civics classes. African caseworkers help individuals and families navigate unfamiliar health, transportation, and housing systems. The group also organizes discussions led by Africans covering topics such as HIV testing and how to get actively involved in the education of children in the family.
The benefit is twofold, says Ms. Taintor: Africans receive valuable information in a manner comfortable to them, and the group leaders, who receive a small stipend from the Colorado African Organization, gain self respect, confidence, and often job skills by acting as leaders among their peers.
Ms. Taintor says the group, which helped about 4,000 people last year, faces many challenges, including serving a diverse population of people from 55 countries who speak 800 ethnic languages. Also, Africans account for less than 1 percent of Colorado’s population, making it difficult to gain attention and support, she says.
Nearly all of the group’s $550,000 budget comes from government grants. She would like to attract more assistance from organizations like the Rose Youth Foundation, which awarded the Colorado African Organization $15,500 in the past two years. Part of the Rose Community Foundation, Rose Youth trains Jewish teenagers how to give away money locally. While the money helped, the education the young grant makers received was even more valuable, says Ms. Taintor.
“There are international populations locally that really need support in the same way people abroad need support,” she says. “It’s great to see these kids realize this, and that their dollars can have a great impact in their home communities.”