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'Truly a Creighton experience': students on Service & Justice Trip at Yates Center lend hand to refugees, immigrants

Spread around four tables in an upstairs room at the Yates Community Center, about 35 people are hard at work reading, writing, repeating and responding to a series of phrases and questions that may very well portend their futures in the United States of America.

“Washington, D.C., is the capital of the nation.”

“New York was the capital of the nation.”

“Who wrote the Constitution?”

That one gets sticky. Was it Thomas Jefferson? James Madison? A whole team of guys in wigs and funny pants?

The people around the tables are immigrants from around the world, studying for their U.S. citizenship examinations. And last week, seven Creighton University students on a Fall Service & Justice Trip with the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice went alongside the new arrivals, helping with English language skills and the sometimes complex nature of American history and civics.

“There’s been a lot of reinforcement for us on history and government, that’s for sure,” says Hannah Smith, a sophomore and co-lead on this year’s first-ever Fall Service & Justice Trip to the Yates Center, an education and training center for immigrants and refugees overseen by the Omaha Public Schools. “But it’s been refreshing, too. We hope we’re giving them some help with their English, with learning the workings of a new homeland. That’s what really rounds out a Creighton education, being a man or woman for and with others.”

Just down the hall from the citizenship course, two Creighton students found themselves in the Yates Center’s sewing room, cutting and sorting fabric for people who were, in turn, sewing the cloth into aprons and other garments.

Ana Balintona, a junior, was on her first Service & Justice Trip and pronounced the experience a cultural touchstone for Creighton students and for people like herself, who enjoy making connections with other cultures and working in other languages.

“It’s truly a Creighton experience,” she said. “I think everyone should do it at least once. For me, it gives me a perspective that I might not otherwise have had. I enjoy learning about other cultures and sitting down and talking with people about where they’re from. Even if there’s a language barrier, you’re still able to connect through body language. You’re still able to learn and to teach.”

For Balintona, who speaks French, she found herself sorting fabric with a Yates Center volunteer whose primary language was French.

“It’s been great to connect with her,” Balintona said. “I’ve only had the opportunity to speak French a handful of times.”

The Yates Center trip’s other co-lead, junior Payton Jones, was on his third Service & Justice Trip. Having visited sites in St. Louis and Denver and while friends and fellow students were fanned out elsewhere across the nation, Jones said the Yates Center was a perfect illustration of the Service & Justice Trips’ overall aim.

“It’s right here in our own backyard and most of us were unaware of the great work they’re doing with immigrants and refugees,” he said. “So it’s great to be able to learn about your own community and the help that you can lend, right here, a few blocks from Creighton.”

Along with civics and language lessons for adults, the seven Creighton students who visited the Yates Center last week also worked on language skills and played with children and teens at the center.

“We might not always connect through language, but there’s always soccer,” said Grace Hunt, a junior on her first Service & Justice Trip. “And where we might’ve had some of the expertise with the English lessons, they definitely had the expertise on the soccer field. It was a great way to get to know them.”

In the hive of activity that is the center, students performed manifold tasks and interacted with people from across the world who have found a welcoming place in Omaha. All said the experience spoke directly to the education they’ve received, and it was a fitting moment and place to put those lessons to work.

“Creighton is great at pulling those things together and putting them to work as a community,” Jones said.

Veronica Hill, a program coordinator at the Yates Center, said the Creighton students had been a massive help throughout the week. From sorting donations to playing and working with the children at the center to helping people take the next steps toward becoming citizens in their new home, the Creighton students shined an integral light into the week’s work.

“What they’ve been doing is essential,” Hill said. “But I think just their presence has been enough. Just being here has made the people they’re working with feel valued. Working on literacy, playing with the kids, tidying and sorting, that’s been extremely helpful. On the other side of it are those people-to-people relationships and to us, those are the most powerful things we can do. What these students have done is a testament to the Creighton emphasis on service.”

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