Joseph’s Story: Finding a Home, Pursuing a Dream in Grand Rapids


Joseph and his family arrived in Grand Rapids from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018. As the school year approached, he began attending the summer literacy program at the Refugee Education Center, one of Heart of West Michigan United Way’s partner agencies.

Joseph quickly became a leader among his peers, helping others, asking questions, and showing up every day ready to learn despite the trauma he carried. His favorite part of the program was taking fieldtrips to places like John Ball Zoo, Blandford Nature Center, and the Grand Rapids Children's Museum.

While his English skills were relatively strong, Joseph had a lot of catching up to do in math, science, and social studies, so the Refugee Education Center continued to support him as he entered Burton Middle School. Every week, he met with Trace, a volunteer tutor, and attended an after-school program to work on his math and science assignments.

This December, Joseph earned the Refugee Education Center’s Friendship Award for his leadership skills in working with others and being inclusive in his relationships. Joseph’s dream is to become a doctor, and he’s eager to improve his science grade so that he can achieve his goal.

Alison Kummer, student programs coordinator at the Refugee Education Center, with students.

Alison Kummer, student programs coordinator at the Refugee Education Center, with students.

Though the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. has fallen in recent years, Kent County has a sizable refugee population, with an estimated 7,600 refugees currently living in the county. Refugees enrich our community both culturally and economically, but the transition to life in the U.S. can be hard, especially for kids.

To help new arrivals reach their potential and thrive in West Michigan, Heart of West Michigan United Way funds Project Faulu at the Refugee Education Center, which provides year-round services for middle school refugee and immigrant students in Kent County, focusing on social-emotional support, language skills, and math and science tutoring.

The Refugee Education Center works closely with another United Way-funded Youth Education partner agency, The Expanded Learning Opportunities Network. The ELO helps after-school providers at the Refugee Education Center and other agencies stay up to date on the latest educational strategies and methods, ultimately providing better services to students like Joseph.

To learn more about the Youth Education programs we fund, visit our Agency Partners page.