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HIAS Volunteers in Their Own Words: Part Four

Apr 20, 2018

Blog Post

In honor of National Volunteer Week (April 15 - April 21), HIAS is celebrating the invaluable contributions of our volunteer network. Welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to the United States would not be possible without the tireless efforts of the thousands of volunteers and volunteer coordinators across the country.

Below are brief accounts by three HIAS volunteer coordinators who serve refugees and asylum seekers in Washington, DC, Pennsylvania and New York, describing their involvement in their own words. To read more entries in this series, click here.


Jenna Magee

Volunteer Programs Coordinator for US Programs at HIAS. She mobilizes and supports a national network of volunteers with HIAS affiliate partners.

The volunteer base in the HIAS network numbers over 5,000. These Americans—retirees, students, and working professionals of all faiths and backgrounds—dedicate their time either for a one-day volunteer event packing toiletry kits, occasional help with resume workshops, or every week for 20 years as a friendly face at the front desk.

Some volunteers teach English and financial literacy classes. Some write letters to asylum seekers in detention. Others mentor newly arrived refugees through their first year in the U.S., watch kids so that mom or dad can interview for a job or attend an asylum hearing, write newsletters, enter data, deliver furniture, manage food drives, or sort donations. The list goes on.

HIAS works with 17 agencies across the country to resettle 4.8 percent of the refugees who arrive in the United States every year, managing a diverse portfolio of grants and projects designed to move refugees from a surviving to thriving. The volunteer program is embedded within the US Programs department to advance its strategic objectives by working with affiliates to multiply their capacity through volunteers.

In my work, I provide technical support to affiliates in the form of trainings, resources, and coaching, manage partnerships with entities wishing to support HIAS’ volunteer programs. I also connect Americans to HIAS’ work and elevate and appreciate the work of volunteers on a national level. Rather than give an in-depth explanation of what that all entails, I invite the reader to learn about my typical work day below.

Volunteers are the heart and backbone of HIAS and are essential to refugee resettlement and integration. At a time of uncertainty in federal support for refugee programming, HIAS is increasingly looking to volunteers to provide long-term support for refugees as they integrate into their host communities. Luckily, citizens across America are stepping up more than ever to volunteer their time and make a difference in their communities, and they could not be more appreciated by HIAS.

Work Day of a Volunteer Programs Coordinator at HIAS (Last Monday to be Exact)

09:00 - Respond to emails that have come in overnight, review day’s schedule

09:30 - Call with HIAS New York and Assoc. VP of US Programs to prepare for upcoming presentation for HIAS to be certified as a Service Enterprise Organization, a program to help HIAS better meet our mission through the power of volunteers

10:00 - Coaching call with Volunteer Coordinator and Refugee AmeriCorps member at US Together in Columbus, OH about the progress of switching over to their new volunteer management software*

*Since HIAS purchased the software in May of last year, 8 affiliates and 3 HIAS departments have begun using it to capture the impact of volunteers nationwide. In this time, we have captured 12,377 volunteer hours, which translates to $299K (the value of volunteer time in the US is averaged at $24.14 per hour)

11:00 - Research and prepare documents for purchasing an additional software module to better manage volunteer and refugee interactions

12:00 - Working lunch to prepare for upcoming webinar and catch up on emails since 9:30

1:00 - Facilitate webinar for local HIAS partners showcasing how HIAS New York, HIAS Pennsylvania, and JFCS East Bay work with local community groups and synagogues to provide wraparound support to refugee families in their first year of arrival

2:30 - Work on materials and event planning for upcoming National Volunteer Appreciation Week (April 15-21)*

*Although the core of my job is to support volunteer coordinators at HIAS affiliates nationwide who manage 20 to 700 volunteers per agency. I also work with HIAS’ Community Engagement and Communications team to serve a diverse network of volunteers (individuals and groups) wishing to be connected to meaningful opportunities to help refugees, and to recognize the work that our volunteers do across our network. This past fall, our teams worked together to revamp the HIAS volunteer website and integrate the new volunteer management technology into how we refer prospective volunteers to opportunities.

4:00 - Call with Airbnb to discuss Open Homes, an initiative Airbnb are piloting with HIAS*

*In addition to providing technical support to affiliates, I create and manage partnerships with national organizations wishing to establish a relationship with HIAS for the purpose of connecting their knowledge, resources, and constituents with our volunteer programs. Active partners include UJA Federation, Airbnb, Amnesty International, the National Peace Corps Association, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.


Kerry Coughlin

Community Engagement Specialist at HIAS Pennsylvania, one of HIAS’ local resettlement partners in Philadelphia.

HIAS Pennsylvania provides legal and social services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

We have around 200 volunteers who support not only refugees and staff in the resettlement and post-resettlement process, but also asylum seekers, asylees, and other immigrant clients. Our volunteers include folks providing direct service, administrative assistance, interpretation and translation, mental health screenings, mentoring, and other support.

Our Philly Neighbor program is designed to be a sort of extension to the resettlement period and serve as a bridge between the initial reception and placement phase and self-sufficiency. A Philly Neighbor is usually paired with a refugee around the time the three month resettlement period is ending.

Philly Neighbors work with an individual or family for six months, and at any given time there are 10 to 15 active Philly Neighbors, though many Neighbors maintain a relationship beyond this period. We are working on expanding Philly Neighbors to work with non-refugee clients, starting with asylees and immigrant victims of crime.

It’s been a challenge to centralize and generalize the best ways to support volunteers. Our volunteers are so different from one another and have different needs, expectations, and questions - which is, of course, to be expected! There is such a vast range of needs and requests from the folks we pair Neighbors with, and these are communicated and expressed in so many different ways that it's virtually impossible to share with a potential volunteer exactly what they'll be doing before they get started.

Neighbors have to be comfortable going with the flow and knowing that planned goals may change as the relationship develops. I am constantly amazed by how above and beyond our Philly Neighbors are willing to go to be a guide to the folks they're paired with. That being said, we have to always keep healthy boundaries in mind and make sure that any decision made or action taken is one that lends itself to the self-sufficiency of the client in the long term. Our job is to ensure that Neighbors are taking things on with their paired refugees and not for them.

We really take time, where possible, to encourage folks to reflect on their own privilege and explore their own biases before entering into a relationship.

At one point, one of our Philly Neighbor volunteers had to have surgery and was immobile for a period of time. During this time, his matched family took care of him. All of their children are overseas and they really have come to see this volunteer as like a son to them. They checked in on him, made him meals, etc. It was a lovely demonstration of how reciprocal these relationships can be!

We also have an all-star volunteer who has been a Philly Neighbor for two families now. For one of the families, the mother is a baker and great cook, and the father is a carpenter. The Philly Neighbor came up with some creative ways to support both of them. She set up a baking co-op with the mother, taking orders and informing her of the orders; the mother, in turn, baked Syrian pastries and cookies for the community. The Philly Neighbor was also able to solicit tools from the community for the father to begin practicing carpentry again.

For both individuals, the Philly Neighbor was able to identify some strategic ways to support them in the things they are passionate about while also further connecting them to the community in a very reciprocal and balanced way.

We do our best to really portray that this is definitely a more time-intensive and emotionally intensive commitment than the other positions, but also such a fun and rewarding one.

You are developing a relationship with someone and really supporting them in their early months in the city, while also navigating boundaries, language barriers, cultural miscommunications, and other potential challenges. We especially tell volunteers to try to have as few expectations as is realistically possible, because these relationships manifest themselves in such a myriad of often unpredictable ways.

We're working on more informative handbook for them based on past Neighbors' feedback, and now offer quarterly Philly Neighbor meetups, the first of which took place in February 2018. We continue to add in-service and workshop opportunities for all volunteers that would be especially helpful to Philly Neighbors and hope to continue to identify and provide these from experts.


Laura Weiss

Laura is a Volunteer Coordinator at HIAS in New York and works to engage volunteers and provide holistic, wrap-around services and support for HIAS’ asylum seeking clients in New York City.

New York City becomes a new home to over 30,000 individuals every year who flee their home countries in search of asylum. At HIAS in New York City, our asylum seeking clients are here due to persecution based on race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, sexual orientation, large-scale targeted violence, and/or human rights violations.

Unfortunately, as asylum seekers do not qualify for most state and federally funded benefits in the United States, the lives of our clients are heavily vulnerable, making it difficult to thrive and be on their way towards self-sufficiency. It’s clear that without organizations like HIAS to turn to, our clients would lack a pathway towards protection and safety.

In order to begin to fill these numerous gaps in available social services for asylum seekers, we have, since Summer of 2017, built upon HIAS’ existing free legal services by incorporating a new volunteer strategy to support the needs, goals, and lives of our asylum seeking clients. I was thrilled to join the HIAS team in May of 2017 and since, I have worked in close partnership with Hadas Yanay, our Volunteer Coordinator with HIAS New York’s refugee resettlement team, to match clients one-to-one with volunteer mentors.

Our direct-service volunteer program, focusing on the development of self-sufficient and independent livelihoods, engages volunteers as Career Mentors, English Language Tutors, English Language Conversation Partners, College Mentors, and New York Neighbors, each role specifically designed to target the majority of our client’s needs.

It’s incredible how many doors can open for our clients because of the various networks within our community of skilled volunteers. It’s a privilege to be in this role and witness improvements in English speaking abilities, to hear transformations in how a client speaks about their work history, to see clients achieve tangible goals, and to be alongside newly formed friendships. There is nothing that I’m more drawn to than supporting our clients to use their human potential and be the confident, courageous change-makers they were back home.

One of my main goals for 2018 is for this program to grow into one that additionally focuses on community-building through facilitated activities and opportunities that our caring volunteers and community partners can support. It’s incredibly important for us to help extend the networks our clients have access to, especially in a fast-paced, constantly shifting environment like New York City. I’m excited to take lessons learned from our first year of volunteer engagement and build an even more thoughtful, holistic, and supportive volunteer strategy to benefit the lives of those that need it most.

Interested in learning more about volunteering with HIAS? Check out our volunteer page. And to read more about refugees and the communities that welcome them, follow HIAS on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.