ACE Spring Festival marks eight years of helping immigrant African families thrive

UMMS among community partners celebrating with African Community Education on April 12

By Sandra Gray

UMass Medical School Communications

April 10, 2014
Olga Valdman, MD
ACE cofounder Olga Valdman, MD, is seen here at the 2013 Spring Festival.

Started in 2006 as a Saturday-only program with 27 African youth enrolled in the Worcester Public Schools, today African Community Education (ACE) serves more than 100 African immigrant and refugee children and parents from seven countries in six distinct programs.

On Saturday, April 12, ACE students will join with families, friends and the greater Worcester community at the seventh annual Spring Festival. Volunteers and supporters from community partners, including UMass Medical School, will be on hand for the festivities.

“Many UMMS students volunteer as ACE tutors, mentors, classroom aids and activity supervisors,” said Frank Murphy, survey research interviewer for Commonwealth Medicine’s Disability Evaluation Services unit. “Volunteers are an integral part of the program's success, and provide an organized avenue for the medical school community to contribute to ACE.”

Murphy splits his time between Commonwealth Medicine and ACE, where he serves as liaison to the Worcester Public Schools. In that role he works closely with teachers, counselors and administrators as well as ACE’s outreach team, which makes home visits to families to assist ACE’s staff with communication and serve as family and student advocates. He also teaches English at the ACE Saturday program.

“ACE is the perfect organization where I can apply my passions for learning from and working with African cultures, education and social justice,” said Murphy, who holds a degree in African studies from UMass Amherst.  

UMMS has been involved with ACE since its inception, playing an essential role in its history. In 2006 Olga Valdman, MD, then a School of Medicine student who has since returned as a faculty member, co-founded ACE with Executive Director Kaska Yawo, a refugee resettlement case worker from Liberia who is now an American citizen. Dr. Valdman and Yowa created ACE to provide a safe and supportive environment in which African refugees and immigrant children can learn, achieve and succeed in their new country.

Students attending the program have come to the United States from nations suffering from war and political or social instability that left them unable to engage in meaningful schooling; thus many are often years behind their peers in most subjects. ACE provides academic and extracurricular programming after school on weekdays and on Saturdays to children in grades 5 through 12 who are currently attending Worcester Public Schools.

“When they first arrive, these kids want to learn, but being so behind in school is very discouraging,” Valdman explained in a 2008 interview. Now an assistant professor of family medicine & community health at UMMS, she cares for patients at the Family Health Center of Worcester, which serves many in the city’s growing African refugee and immigrant population.

“Education is integrally linked to health status—without proper support, some students drop out of high school and some engage in risky behaviors,” noted Valdman, herself an immigrant who came to Massachusetts from Moscow at age 15 not speaking a word of English.

Today students, staff and faculty continue to serve ACE. Current UMMS volunteers include Charles Gayflor and George Boley, both mental health workers in the Department of Psychiatry; students Sonal Jangalwe (GSBS); Eric Gruber (SOM); and  Shaun L'Esperance (GSN), as well as UMMS graduate and surgery resident Mostafa Noury, MD.

Serving on ACE’s Board of Directors are Valdman; GSN alumna Toy Lim, MS, now a family nurse practitioner at Family Health Center of Worcester; and medical students Josiah Bote, Andrea Posa,  and Molly Storer.

“ACE is something I would have taken advantage of,” said Bote, who immigrated to Haverhill, Mass., from Zimbabwe in 2006 when he was 16 years old and graduated from UMass Lowell. “The program helps a lot of families get to their feet when they come here.”

When Andrea Posa learned about ACE as a first-year medical student at the annual Community Services Fair, she said, “These are the kids I want to work with, because their stories are so inspirational. They have come from all different backgrounds and all different countries across Africa and share that here, in a place that’s new and different. Oftentimes they don’t speak the language and have very little education.”

Prior to serving on the board, Posa was a mentor to two ACE high school students with whom she remains in touch. Both have gone on to college.

“This experience has helped me shape my career goals,” said Posa, who will do her residency in pediatrics at University of Washington Affiliated Hospitals in Seattle, where she will continue to work with immigrants and refugees.

The Spring Festival will feature African drumming, dancing and a fashion show. Four individuals will share personal narratives of their experiences with ACE. A buffet dinner of home cooked African food will immediately follow the program.

“We are far-flung and separate at home, but we come together here,” said ACE parent and English as a Second Language and Citizenship Program Coordinator Jarwinken Wiah, who encourages other parents to bring their children to ACE.

“The tutors take their time to understand what I’m having trouble with,” said Wiah’s son Milton, a 13-year-old eighth grader who does his homework at the after school program. “I would like to see more kids who are struggling come here.”

The ACE Spring Festival will take place Saturday, April 12, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Worcester. Doors open at 3 p.m. and the program will run from 4 to 6 p.m. Admission is free and open to the public, with a $10 per person donation suggested. Visit the ACE website or call 508-799-3653 to learn more about ACE and the Spring Festival.

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