Lincoln Charter School reaches out to young refugees
by Staff Writer
This spring, Heidi Martin decided to help a group of refugee students from Vietnam learn to read. But she was a bit hesitant to start.
As director of employee services at Lincoln Charter School, she’s not trained to teach literacy, and many of the Montagnard students involved with the program barely spoke English.
But Martin and Lincoln Charter Core Knowledge Coordinator Tiffany Joffee recruited about 14 middle schoolers to go with her to the Huntersville Public Library, where Ron Major, founder of the Montagnard literacy program, was holding a Thursday evening tutoring session.
Instantly, she fell in love with the children and teenagers and decided to strengthen Lincoln Charter’s involvement in the program.
“We went and realized what a need there was to help these kids out,” Martin said. “We are trying to embrace them and let them know they are wanted here.”
Now, twice a week, Lincoln Charter buses travel to West Charlotte to pick up about 20 Montagnard students, who range in from kindergarten students to 17-years-olds. They drive the kids to the school in Denver, and for a couple hours, Lincoln Charter students, staff and other community members offer the kids a meal, help with homework and reading instruction.
Volunteers also educate the young Montagnards about American culture, society and manners.
After arriving in some of Charlotte’s poorest neighborhoods, the refugee children often are exposed to urban culture, including gang activity, “and they see that as America,” Martin said. “We try to talk to them about rights and wrongs and show them that that isn’t America as a whole.”
The Lincoln Charter volunteers plan to continue the tutoring work through the summer.
The Montagnards hail from the central highlands of Vietnam, where the Vietnamese government has persecuted them for practicing Christianity, rejecting communism and aiding U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. For more than 35 years, the Vietnamese government has refused to educate Montagnard children, so many enter America without an education, even in their native language.
“The Montagnard people are the indigenous people of Vietnam, much like the American Indians are the indigenous people of the United States,” Major, the tutoring group’s founder, said. “During the Vietnam War, these kind, gentle people saved thousands of American lives, and communist leaders hate them for that.”
Many of the program’s students have made vast improvements, moving up an average of two grade levels per year, Major said. All of the students come to tutoring sessions with a strong desire to learn, he said.
“There was one boy who told us that he had always wanted to go to school like the Vietnamese kids when he lived in Vietnam,” Major said. The boy, his sister and widowed mother spent two months traveling through the jungles of Vietnam at nightfall until they reached Cambodia. Then, the family spent two years in a refuge camp before U.S. authorities allowed them in the country.
According to Major, the tutoring program’s goal is to help every child reach grade level by December. The group has no formal budget and is made up of what Major describes as a “loosely connected group of very caring people.”
Major launched the program through his church, Community in Christ Lutheran in Cornelius, but since then, he has gained other volunteers from Unity Presbyterian Church in Denver and Lake Norman Charter School’s Key Club.
“These kids have just blossomed,” Major said. “It’s so exciting just to see all that is happening with them. This is literally changing their lives.”
Want to help?
To volunteer with the Montagnard literacy program, email Ron Major at firstname.lastname@example.org.