Two Ponte Vedra High School students are trying to help fill the void left by recent cuts to refugee resettlement funding and programs throughout Northeast Florida and the United States.
Chase Magnano, a rising junior, and Grace Freedman, a rising senior, created JaxTHRIVE, which aims to “provide a nurturing environment where tutoring, life skills mentoring and friendship help them advance in the classroom and flourish in our community.”
The pair became interested in creating the nonprofit after volunteering with World Relief last summer.
“We heard they were losing funding, so following that, we thought the next step would be to do this,” said Magnano about coming up with JaxTHRIVE.
Through Magnano and Freedman’s dedication and drive, JaxTHRIVE boasted 118 volunteers from eight high schools (Bolles, Episcopal, Stanton, Creekside, Oakleaf, Fletcher, Greenwood and Ponte Vedra), two middle schools (Landrum and Jacksonville Country Day) and a college (University of North Florida) during its first year. The volunteers worked with refugee children, from ages 6-18, to help them adjust to life in their new country, and to build friendships along the way.
The PVHS students started spreading the message about the organization to friends at their school and word of mouth spread to other schools. Every Saturday since November, volunteers have been working on a rotating basis to help the young refugees work on their vocabulary, reading and math skills, as well as give them the opportunity to engage in activities with fellow students. JaxTHRIVE held a graduation party for its first group of students May 19.
Many of the refugee children in the program are from Africa and Middle East, specifically Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a few are from Iran and Afghanistan, said Magnano. But more importantly, is that they are made to feel welcome and set up to succeed, he said.
Jacksonville has become a hub for refugees, boasting one of the largest refugee populations in the U.S. Specifically, the city is home to the fifth-largest Syrian American population in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Magnano’s mother Elizabeth Paul Freedman said the number of refugees in the area and the funding cuts have made JaxTHRIVE’s mission increasingly vital.
“There’s a huge need in this area and there are a lot of children who are eager to learn,” said Freedman.
The students are also able to develop relationships with other kids who may come from different places but share similar experiences. Freedman said two young girls who met through the program — one from Syria and one from the Democratic Republic of Congo — have now become best friends.
“I think it really changes the way they look at the world,” said Magnano. “Especially seeing them in the beginning, when they would come in and were shy and you really needed to coax them to participate, to the end where they’ve got these relationships that they’ve made. I think that translates over to their school, and they’re not going to be afraid to reach out and make new friends.”
Freedman said the bonding and shared experiences wasn’t just for the students, though.
“With the kids, and even with the volunteers, we found so many commonalities between us,” she said. “And even though we may have been separated geographically in the past, and they’ve been put through extraordinary circumstances, we find so much common ground between us and we really build these amazing relationships. We just want to emphasize the common humanity in everyone.”
But like other nonprofits, JaxTHRIVE is dependent on donations and community support to keep it afloat, and after a successful initial campaign, Magnano and Freedman hope to grow their outreach and help even more refugee children in the future.
“Last year was a really amazing year for us, and we would like to see that again this year,” said Freedman. “We would like to see other THRIVEs in different communities, not just Jacksonville, but other areas in Northeast Florida, and even other cities in other states.”
JaxTHRIVE also boasts a store with donated items such as clothing, books and toys, and students can earn stamps based on academic progress and achievements to cash in for products at the store. The organization also uses donations to help provide other needs, such as school uniforms and supplies. One hundred percent of the donation go to help the students in the program, said Magnano.
“There’s such a large need for what they’re receiving,” he said. “It really changes their lives and drastically improves their chances of success.”
And while JaxTHRIVE was designed to make a positive impact on the lives of refugee children, it’s also made a big impact on the lives of its creators, as well.
“Just every week when you see them and see how far they’ve come, it just puts everything into perspective, and reminds us of why we’re doing it,” said Magnano.
For more information on JaxThrive, go to JaxTTHRIVE.net or visit their page on Facebook or Instagram at jaxTHRIVE. To make a donation, click on the donate link on the website.