JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The First Coast YMCA is helping a group of Ukrainian children have a fun-filled summer and feel more at ease settling into their new home.
The nonprofit is holding summer camps at two of its locations, giving the kids a much-needed opportunity to bond with peers experiencing similar challenges.
Michelle Orts is the senior program director for the YMCA’s New American Welcome Center. It’s a program that works specifically with refugee families. It offers food, clothing and diaper pantries. English and citizenship classes are also provided. Orts says seeing what these children have gone through is heartbreaking.
“They’ve all been moved away from their friends, moved away from their country,” Orts said. “Moved away from everything that made them feel that they were home.”
Throughout the month of July, the children get to attend summer camp. At camp, they’re able to make new friends, try new things and have a sense of belonging. Orts says she’s already seen a positive change.
“You see the first day when they were barely speaking,” Orts said. “And now, when they come in with the other group of peers, they’re sitting and they’re laughing, they’re participating more. That’s very fulfilling to us.”
The YMCA is also supporting Ukrainian children by collecting stuffed animals as part of the Hugs for Ukraine campaign started by local 11-year-old Sage Goodall. The collection will be happening at 14 of the Y’s local locations. Donations can be made through July 18.
Orts says this is just the beginning. She’s already thinking about what this means for these children’s future here as they help children who’ve fled their homes feel at ease and welcome in their new community.
“It just fills my heart knowing they can come here and find new friends,” Orts said. “That way, when they go to school, they may know some of these children or they might feel more comfortable or they might speak a little bit of English, and those first days of school won’t be so scary to them.”
Stuffed toys and other donations are always welcome. To see the list of locations and to learn more, go to fcymca.org.