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The Incredible Value of Volunteers

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Volunteer, Rebecca Ortiz (left), explains the details of bus travel in the U.S. to Paulina Carlo, a refugee from Guatemala.

Elena Ferrantino remembers the struggles of leaving home because of the threat of war in Moldova when she was a child. She left and for a few months lived in Ukraine with extended family. She later immigrated to the U.S. from Moldova and has experienced the challenges of adjusting to life in a new country.

About a year ago, she overheard coworkers at Ascentria Care Alliance talking about a new program: Refugee AmeriCorps. Her curiosity was piqued.

Ascentria is a long-time LIRS partner in refugee resettlement. The New England organization is one of the 13 sites participating in the new Refugee AmeriCorps program.

What is Refugee AmeriCorps?

Refugee AmeriCorps pairs former refugees with refugee resettlement organizations. Each participant builds a group of committed volunteers who teach Cultural Orientation (CO) classes. The goal is to expand the scale of CO services and increase the program’s effectiveness. As Elena puts it, “the Expanded Cultural Orientation Program helps teach refugees about U.S. culture, English, laws, healthcare, safety, banking, employment, and housing.” Each vital topic helps build a foundation for refugees’ success in America.

So, when Elena heard about the new program, she decided to apply. Her experience as a newcomer to America meant she understood how difficult the change can be. She wanted to help, and now Elena coordinates volunteers and guest speakers for classes Ascentria provides to refugees.

Volunteers: The “True Backbone”

Elena finds and coordinates volunteers and guest speakers for each of the fifteen Cultural Orientation classes that are offered. She recruits people of many professions including nurses, teachers, and police officers to be volunteers. Now that she’s mobilizing volunteers, Elena says she realized that volunteers “are the true backbone” of the CO program.

Now, halfway through the year-long Refugee Americorps program, Elena is thriving in her role. She reflects on the year so far:

My job is very rewarding. I see every day how kindness can make a difference. I observe it in the refugees we serve and in the volunteers who are there to help. I often wonder if there is a limit to the goodness, and think that there isn’t.

Two refugees in Georgia practice speaking English with a volunteer.


Though she finds her work rewarding, Elena dreams of what more could be done to better serve recently resettled refugees. She wishes she could take refugees on trips to government buildings, cultural events, and places like grocery stores and banks. These trips would help introduce students to important locations that may be unfamiliar.

Elena’s ideas extend to the volunteers too. She would like to do more for volunteers in appreciation of everything they do.

One Volunteer’s Experience

One volunteer Elena has worked with is Lynne Knudsen, a former college professor who teaches in Ascentria’s CO classes. She describes her experience:

Each day, as I see the news reports about refugees and their struggles to leave their war torn homelands to come here to create a new life, I feel a deep empathy for them…

I enjoy teaching [Cultural Orientation classes] so that our new refugees can feel pride in their understanding of our culture, and hopefully, their participation in it, which is the true meaning of democracy.

At LIRS, we agree that refugees add richness to our culture, strengthen our economy, and contribute in many ways to our communities. Welcoming communities begin with Americans opening our hearts and homes to our new neighbors from around the world.

How You Can Volunteer

Visit our volunteers page for videos of how volunteers across the country are supporting new Americans. If you’re in the Westfield, MA area, you can become part of the volunteer support network Elena is building at Ascentria Care Alliance.

Sign up to welcome refugees and help them adjust to their new lives in the United States.


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