|Natalie Meyer: R.O.C. Star on a Mission|
|by Michelle A.L. Singer|
Natalie Meyer, a 17-year-old recent graduate of Champlain Valley Union High School, is on a mission to connect young people with the world through international service.
Meyer is the founder and executive director of Refugee Outreach Club (R.O.C.), an organization she began after a three-week trip to Ghana through Global Leadership Adventures when she was just 15 years old. Inspired by her time working with students there teaching English, she decided to continue the same kind of outreach back at Champlain Valley Union High School.
"I never thought we'd have a full blown 501(c)(3) with a board of directors that have traveled to all different parts of the world and done incredible things, and I never thought it would be possible to start all these new programs," she says. Since R.O.C. started two years ago, the club has expanded, with chapters in four other high schools (South Burlington, Mount Mansfield, Rice Memorial, and Stowe High School) and Middlebury College. In 2017, Meyer made a second trip to Ghana and launched a cultural exchange and international health program.
When Meyer began R.O.C., her goal was to get kids involved in the international community. "I want young people to have a global perspective and be aware of what is going on," she says. "Our generation is next. Young people are going to be the ones to figure things out after what's going on right now. The first step is educating young people about service, whether that's starting in high school or college, or elementary and middle school. Our vision is creating a globally connected world of young people to be able to work together internationally to solve problems."
R.O.C.'s first activity was mentoring children in a tutoring program held Saturdays at Burlington High School. The program, staffed entirely by volunteers, is run by the Heritage Learning Program, which "aims to build future US citizens without losing cultural roots and to share traditions, culture and language with the larger community of Vermont." Funded in part by the Burundian American Association of Vermont, the Heritage Learning Program offers classes in the language, culture, and traditions of Burundi as well as tutoring in math, English, and other school subjects. R.O.C. still sends at least 10 volunteer students each week and serves 20 to 40 mostly Burundian and Congolese community members.
Sophia Monette-Owens of South Burlington High School R.O.C. says, "It's an overall great program, and it's grown over the past two years … I remember a little girl in the first to third grade group. When she came in she was silent, and she had a coat up over her face … I assumed she didn't know how to speak English since she was new. I would come over to her every week, but she still wouldn't say anything. Eventually, after many weeks, she began to open up. I got to see her blossom into an energetic outgoing kid. I began to see that we can have an impact on them … We help them with math and homework, but it's more about getting to know them and building connections."
From that base, R.O.C. began to do regular fundraisers. Every year, R.O.C. hosts a winter clothing drive and a school supplies drive for local refugee communities. Each participating high school also does a current issues fundraiser. Two years ago, R.O.C. did a bracelet drive to raise money for Save the Children after the earthquake in Nepal, and this year it held a bake sale for Haiti. Each school also hosts an international guest speaker, and all the R.O.C. chapters are invited to attend. This year in Ghana, Meyer started the first international cultural exchange between students in Ghana and R.O.C. chapters by organizing a bracelet-making and exchange project as a symbol of new friendships.
Meyer also launched the first college chapter of R.O.C. at Middlebury College. Run by a freshman with two faculty advisers, the group wants to focus on college readiness for refugees and grant writing. Their focus this fall will be a new soccer program aimed at connecting the community and recruiting students for the tutoring and college-readiness programs. Meyer herself will attend Middlebury College in spring 2018 to pursue a degree in international relations and global health.
It's been a busy few years, but by the sounds of her vision for 2022, Meyer is just getting warmed up. On her recent trip to Ghana, Meyer was able to reunite with former students and strengthen connections to the region. During the nine-week trip, she arranged for each of the participating R.O.C. high schools to connect with a classroom in Ghana via Skype once a week, in addition to the bracelet exchange.
"We wanted to be able to show kids that there's more to life than just their own bubble, from both sides of the spectrum [Ghana and Vermont] … there's an outside world [for the Ghanaians] but also [for Vermonters] sheltered here in Vermont," she said. "That was my biggest goal. The kids loved it—not just the kids in Ghana, the kids in Vermont loved it too."
The students asked questions of one another and could literally "see" what life is like for their counterparts across the globe. Meyer writes in her blog at www.refugeeoutreachclub.org/ghana-updates, "As our programs came to a close, I noticed the biggest change I had seen the entire trip, the students had become bolder and more inquisitive. No longer were they shy and holding back the answers to the questions that they knew were correct. They were standing up and speaking out about things that they had noticed or wanted to learn more about."
Meyer worked closely with Village Exchange Ghana and the director of the program, Kofi Nyalimba, to bring both the cultural exchange and a health program to five rural community schools. Kofi serves as a local, on-the-ground organizer that makes it all work. He is getting his second master's in public and reproductive health, and he and Meyer worked together to design and present a nine-week program focused on healthy decision making and healthy relationships, as well as hygiene and health, to the schools already participating in the cultural exchange. They were able to bring their program to communities with no available reproductive health education.
As a result of their success, Project Girl, an organization that hosts a drive for sanitary products for young women, hopes R.O.C. can partner with them to provide products for the same rural community schools. As part of Kofi's graduate work, he is planning on studying the number of girls who miss school because they don't have access to proper sanitary materials and proper restrooms.
"Girls don't feel comfortable going to the primitive bathrooms if they are menstruating, so they don't go to school," says Meyer. Project Girl would continue to collect materials, and R.O.C. would distribute them as part of their reproductive health program with an eye toward providing reusable cloth pads like GladRags in the future.
Meyer's time in Ghana was supercharged by the addition of Dr. Julie Spaniel, a Burlington dentist who joined Meyer in the middle of her trip. In just six days, Spaniel and Meyer provided dental care to over 800 men, women, and children. They originally met through their mutual love of horseback riding in Vermont, and when Spaniel said she wanted to come to Ghana, Meyer set up dental clinics at the schools she was already working with. On their first day together, they saw 200 kids. Meyer did the cleaning and fluoride treatments, while Spaniel took the serious cases.
"Julie and I are a lot alike," says Meyer. "When an idea pops into our heads we just go for it and see what happens with it." The dental clinics were so successful, they began to wonder if they could start an international health program to go along with the cultural exchange program. Meyer quickly got in touch with USAID in Ghana and Oral Health Express, another organization doing similar work. They forged a working partnership and plan on bringing even more physicians and dentists next time to treat as many people as possible.
Looking ahead, in addition to keeping the high school and Middlebury clubs running, Meyer is making plans to return to Ghana in January 2018 for two weeks. She will continue the cultural exchange between students in Ghana and Vermont, as well as the reproductive and dental clinics she began this year. Her five-year plan is to create an actual exchange between the students, sending Vermonters to Ghana and bringing students from Ghana to Vermont. For now, the next step would be to bring computers and establish reliable Internet connections in the schools in Ghana so they can continue to Skype.
She is also focusing on refugee health care in Vermont. She has plans for R.O.C. to expand the "free refugee dental day" recently offered by Spaniel at her Sprucewood Dental office. Meyer would love to see the event offered four times per year, with multiple dental practices throughout Vermont. She would also like to see other medical services offered but knows there is an immediate need for dental care and has already heard from other dentists who have reached out since the first dental day and want to provide services.
Meyer works closely with 17-year-old Anna Rowland, who serves as R.O.C.'s Vermont director and is, Meyer says, the "most amazing person ever." Meyer and Rowland ensure that R.O.C. is "still a youth voice."
"Young people see the world differently," Meyer says. "Some people say we don't see no, or we don't see roadblocks. If something isn't working, we find another way."
They have the support of a board of directors that is full of "powerhouses," all of whom have extensive experience working with the international community. Some, like Veronica Bernicke, Amy Poland, and Mark Perkell, Meyer has known and looked up to for a long time. Bernicke's son was the first of Meyer's classmates to join her at Saturday tutoring. Some of the newer board members include Dr. Steven Shepard, Louisa Schibli, Adelit Rukomangana, and Dr. Julie Spaniel. "We have a solid board of directors. They are connected in different ways and different places," says Meyer.
Meyer knows that an expensive service trip, like the one she took through Global Leadership Adventures, which started her on her path, is not available to everyone. But, she says, "There's need in our own communities. There are many issues right in our backyard that we can focus on like refugees, malnutrition, and sex trafficking." That's why, she says, she "keeps on working and starting small. I think big, but that's why I'm focusing on Vermont and focusing on Ghana as my two places." She hopes to open up the possibilities of international service to others and adds, "I think having a global perspective helps kids that maybe think they're at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum here. They're able to Skype with kids in a single classroom in Ghana without electricity. It gives perspective."
Michelle A.L. Singer lives in East Montpelier. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org