How a Non-Profit that Supports Individuals with Developmental Disabilities is Helping Detained Immigrants and Seekers

During these disparaging times, we all need a feel-good story. Here is a story full of inspiration, goodness, and compassion.

This past summer, Westchester resident Danielle Roma came across a Facebook post seeking volunteers for a Stamp Out Despair project, being run by a local organization called Neighbors for Refugees. This effort solicits writing materials to send to immigrants detained in New Jersey and New York prisons and jails to help them maintain connections with family and friends. The writing packets are distributed twice a year to more than 2,000 people in immigrant detention centers throughout the greater New York area.

Each year, thousands of people arriving at our border or already in the United States apply for asylum or protection from persecution. Asylum seekers can get stuck in detention centers for many months under inhumane conditions, often without contact with family and friends. They include some of the most vulnerable members of society — children, single mothers, domestic violence or torture victims, and other individuals who have suffered persecution and trauma. Detention exacerbates the challenges asylum seekers already face and can negatively impact a person’s asylum application. Children and families detained suffer mental and physical health problems, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and frequent infections. The Stamp Out Despair kits can be lifelines for many of these individuals.

Upon seeing the post, Danielle signed herself up, along with her brother and mother. They soon joined about 12 other volunteers, mostly high school students, all socially distanced and mask-wearing, in a backyard. Each packet included paper, stamped envelopes, greeting cards, note cards, and a pen; items people in detention have a hard time obtaining independently. The volunteers also wrote personal notes of encouragement (in various languages) included in each packet. Danielle gave her brother several assignments and worked closely with him on each task. At the end of the night, the group had collated over 100 kits that would go straight to First Friends of NJ & NY. This organization serves immigrants and asylum seekers held in detention in the Elizabeth Detention Center, the Essex County Correctional Facility, the Bergen County Jail, and the Hudson County Correction & Rehabilitation Center.

The experience didn’t end there for Danielle and her brother, who is autistic. The next day, she told Daniel Barone, Program Director at Nicholas Center Westchester, about the program. Nicholas Center is a non-profit agency that supports individuals with developmental disabilities. The program’s goal is to promote independence for each individual we serve and for them to have a meaningful experience. They look to deliver quality services that work on social skills, life skills, vocational skills, health and wellness skills, and academic skills. Danielle recognized that the work her brother had done the night before was something that the individuals who work alongside her brother at the Nicholas Center would not only be productive for them but beneficial to the lives of refugees and asylum seekers.

Armed with a mission to help out the community in any way possible, Nicholas Center loves to help other non-profits complete their task. Hence, their partnership with Neighbors for Refugees seemed like a natural fit. About Stamp Out Despair, Barone says that “the work is significant, and it helps our individuals complete meaningful work. This program helps our individuals gain work skills as well as connects them with the community.”

Neighbors for Refugees had a large number of materials leftover from the assembly that summer night. They replenished much more of the supplies necessary to make kits, handing everything off to Danielle, who transported the materials to the center in Pleasantville and the young adults got to work. Barone say that they loved the opportunity. “Repetitive tasks are extremely soothing for a lot of this population, so the work was so good for them,” he said. They took every precaution to keep the individuals and staff, maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, and sanitizing all objects after use.

The team behind Neighbors for Refugees instantly saw an upside in the partnership with Nicholas Center. As an organization that advocates for refugees’ rights everywhere, its focus is mainly on community support. Much of the organization’s support is direct, resettling refugees within their borders, and much of its work is indirect, like the Stamp Out Despair Project. They take part in an annual winter coat and boot drive, host a mask-making initiative that has created nearly 10K masks by refugee women and men, and have a grant program that helps refugees in emergencies (it has given out over 50K).

Stamp Out Despair fit right into their mission. Neighbors for Refugees are invested in working with organizations that support the emotional well-being of detainees. They acknowledge the sadness, despair, and shame that many detainees experience from their sometimes long and indeterminate periods of isolation. Through the “Stamp Out Despair Campaign,” the young adults at Nicholas Center can make a significant difference in the lives of those individuals who would otherwise lose hope.

Danielle is extremely proud of her brother and is happy to have connected with Neighbors for Refugees on that warm summer night. The two organizations plan to continue working on special projects together.

“I thought that these are two incredible organizations doing so much good for our community and marginalized groups of people, and it would be awesome to see this bloom,” she said. “I am so proud of the work he is doing and of who he has become.”

Holly Rosen Fink is a marketing consultant and writer living in Larchmont, New York.

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