Bridging the Gap: Sil Ganzó and ourBRIDGE for KIDS (Part 1)
Sil Ganzo: Hola a todos. Mi nombre Sil Ganzo con ourBRIDGE for Kids. Bienveidos a Aldergsate en el aire.
Hi, everyone. This is Sil Ganzo with ourBRIDGE for Kids. Welcome to Aldersgate OnAir.
Mike Peacock: Welcome back, friends. Thanks for joining us for another life-changing episode of Aldersgate OnAir. When I say life-changing, that’s not just metaphoric or symbolic change because today’s guest, Sil Ganzo, has been changing lives, at least on an official level, here in Charlotte since 2010.
Sil is the founder and executive director of ourBRIDGE for Kids. She moves to Charlotte in 2003 from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and became involved with refugee and immigrant families in 2010 when she recognized the lack of educational and socioemotional support for newly arrived children. She was inspired to create ourBRIDGE, a safe, nurturing, and respectful environment where refugee and immigrant children can learn English, be encouraged to achieve academic excellence and cultural pride, and where their families can feel welcome and embraced as they strive to start their lives anew in the United States.
In part one of this two-part episode, Sil shares her experiences in coming to the United States, getting involved with refugee and immigrant families, the formation of ourBRIDGE, its partnership with Aldersgate, and its evolution into a multifaceted organization that feeds thousands of people a week, provides free transportation to schools, promotes engaging cultural clubs and events, and aims to help close the communication gap between schools, teachers, and families.
We also talk to a very special group of kids who have been through the program. They share their experiences of growing up with ourBRIDGE and what the organization has meant to them. Make sure you stick around for part two because we talk to an inspirational Aldersgate resident who has first-hand experience with the organization and an absolutely incredible story of finding out his true cultural identity late in life and how he used that experience to lend a hand with ourBRIDGE. It really is an absolutely epic story you don’t want to miss.
Now, please welcome to Aldersgate OnAir from ourBRIDGE for Kids, Sil Ganzo. Hey, Sil! Thank you so much for joining me today. I am really excited to talk to you about all of the awesome stuff you’ve got going on over there at ourBRIDGE.
Sil: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.
Sil: This is my first podcast, I think.
Mike: Wait. Really?
Sil: Yeah. Yes.
Mike: [Laughter] Well, that is amazing and I think the cool thing about that is, we’re going to learn and grow together. We’re going to share the awesomeness together, so I think it’s going to be an amazing episode. I will try my best to take it easy on you. No promises, though.
But before we dig into the heart of ourBRIDGE, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? I know you came from Argentina, right?
Sil: That’s right.
Mike: Cool, so what brought you to the U.S., and what was your initial experience after getting here?
Sil: Yeah, so I’m born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I came to the States when I was 20 with a work visa as an au pair.
It was somewhat of a sudden decision. I was working as a waitress in downtown Buenos Aires and somebody just handed out a flyer on a corner while I was working that said, you know, do you want to work and study in the United States for a year? I said, well, that sounds like a great idea. So, I called the au pair in America office and, five months later, I was in Connecticut in a Holiday Inn with hundreds of girls from other parts of the world and getting ready for this adventure.
I was excited. I never felt nervous or scared. Then, after that week in Connecticut with a cultural orientation, which meant nothing because nothing can prepare you for when you come to Charlotte, yeah, so I was the only one coming to Charlotte. The one time that I felt scared is when we were leaving the hotel towards the airport. Some girls were going to JFK. Some others were going to LaGuardia.
The bus driver was asking us, you know, “Where are you going?”
“Oh, I’m going to San Diego.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m staying in New York.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going to Chicago.”
When it was my turn, I’m like, I’m going to Charlotte, and he was like, “So, why are you going? What are you going to do there? There’s nothing there.” It’s like my entire world just collapsed because I was so excited and the house that I was going to live in was a house on Lake Norman, which is north of Charlotte in Mooresville. The guy kept talking about how empty and lonely Charlotte was and how much I was going to hate it, and I just wanted to go home.
Mike: Oh… [Laughter]
Sil: [Laughter] It was just terrible.
Mike: He rained on your parade.
Sil: Yeah. I mean I was 20 and I had no idea where I was going. I was very excited and looking forward and then this guy was like, “You are going to hate it.”
But I arrived and it was good. I loved it. It felt like home forever. I met my husband here, and it’s been a long time. We have two kids. Ivan is 14 and Martina is 10. Yeah, I made Charlotte my home and I really love it. I’m very, very excited and I’m thankful that, by chance, I ended up being here.
Mike: Yeah, so for you, it was really kind of an adventure and a chance to get a change of scenery. How long did it take you before you really caught a foothold and started being able to make things work for you here?
Sil: That’s a great question. Yeah, so at the beginning, it was an adventure. It was tough because it was not a good match with the family that I made a match here. I actually asked for a rematch like three months after. I was their first au pair and I think the family did not understand what my role was and they wanted me to work 50 hours a week, day, nights, cooking, cleaning, and no weekends. They didn’t give me a home, like a lot of our au pair girls, they have a room inside a house because they’re supposed to be part of the family, right?
Sil: And learn the culture and teach the family about your culture, which is what brought me into the program and everything. But this family, it was their first one, and they had this shed out in the woods, which is where the people that lived there were building the house. It was a tiny cabin and it didn’t have a computer. It didn’t have TV. I didn’t have a phone. Of course, phones were not very popular. [Laughter] This is a long time ago.
Sil: But I only had an AM/FM radio and it was terrible. It was scary. It was terrible, so I changed families and I went to Atlanta for the second part of my year. Atlanta is a whole different beast. Atlanta, it was my first experience with the racial issues that are in the United States that I was not aware at all. In Atlanta, I learned about MLK, I learned about the underground, and I learned about the Civil War. I spent a lot of time in the library.
I remember just walking towards the library in the area where I was in and just reading these books about the Civil War. I tried to teach myself the best, most accurate side of history, but it was Atlanta, Georgia, so everything I taught myself, I had to teach again later on in the years.
Yeah, it was a year of just learning and experiencing. It was amazing. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Then when I met my – well, I dated my husband for a while and we got married. I think Charlotte really, really quickly became my home. It took me a while to find my call here. I became an x-ray technician, so I did that for a while, and I ended up hating it.
Mike: [Laughter] Oh, no!
Sil: When my daughter was born, I realized that I had to – if I was going to spend time outside of my house, I really wanted to be something that I enjoy doing. Cultures and sharing your traditions has always been super important to me since I was very, very young, so when I found out that there were refugees living in Charlotte, I think that’s when I found not just what was working for me, but I found my goal. I found myself because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do and I knew it was that as soon as I heard Charlotte had 17,000 refugees living here and I didn’t know.
Yeah, so I think that’s when it actually felt like home. But it felt like home before. Don’t get me wrong. It’s just that a lot of times you live for work. It’s like you work to survive and it’s just like the day is going. You just are like a machine and you just do and do and do but mean nothing. When I found out about refugees in Charlotte, I kind of knew what I wanted to do.
Mike: So, it really became your calling.
Mike: Not just a job with no purpose.
Sil: Right. There’s a difference between having a job and having a career. This was more than a job for me.
Mike: So then, let’s fast-forward a few years. How did you come to be involved in ourBRIDGE? I guess, at the same time, tell us what is ourBRIDGE? What’s it all about? How did it get started? What role did you play initially?
Sil: Yeah, so when I found out the cultural diversity development right here in Charlotte was 2010 when I was hired to work for a for-profit company that offered an after school program. A lot of the kids that participated in the after school program were Title 1 kids that were newly arrived. I was the admin, so I was just the copy girl. [Laughter] That was 2010 and that’s when I met so many of the kids that now call the OGs, and they were in kindergarten then.
Mike: Oh, gees.
Sil: They were newly arrived and they couldn’t speak English. It was just so funny because I have these memories, like flash memories, of them pointing to go to the bathroom and now I see them and we’re having adult conversations. It just blows my mind.
Yeah, so I was the admin for about two years. The owners of that company were not very socially – you know, they were a for-profit company, right? They were in for a business and when they stopped receiving funding from the government to support the students, English language learners, they just decided to close.
That was year three. But by year two, I was program director. So, year three and four, they still had to finish with the federal grant, half of the money that they actually needed to offer the program, so I took it over and ran the program and finished it stronger than we started with half of the money that we actually needed then. Of course, there wasn’t any fundraising. We were not a 501(c)(3). We barely – I mean we had to offer the service to the same number of kids, still transportation, and offering snacks and food with that money, so I started building relationships in the community and finding the resources to actually make it.
It was then 2013 that I met a group of volunteers and we all did it basically for free. The last year was terrible because we had no money. We had to pay – I mean all of the money went to rent. I think in that time of so much challenge that we all grew so closer to each other, like with the kids. The kids had the best time of their lives just sliding down a hill with cardboard. You know?
Sil: I mean there weren’t any robotics club there. [Laughter]
Sil: They may tell you, I mean we had donations from Panera Bread because we couldn’t afford to buy anything, so Panera would give us day-old, very expensive muffins, and the kids would eat that, or Dino nuggets, half a banana, or whatever. Yeah, so we struggled and that last year, I realized that I couldn’t just depend on this for-profit company to give us a job, so I realized also that there wasn’t, in Charlotte, another place that was non-faith-based, which is what I kind of built while I was program director.
I just decided if this has to continue and the only way to make it continue is by getting a 501(c)(3) and doing it. I had people saying that we shouldn’t because it’s crazy, it’s expensive, and it’s a law and you don’t know what you’re doing. I had zero experience in running a not-for-profit. I mean I had no idea what bylaws are or incorporation, articles of incorporation, like zero, so I started just calling lawyers around town to see who can take our case pro bono.
Only one lawyer, my last chance, I picked up the phone and called somebody after a lot of people saying, you know, “Yeah, they’ll call you back,” “No, we don’t do that.” This guy answered the phone, the actual lawyer answered the phone, and he spent 45 minutes with me answering every stupid question I had.
He was amazing. His name was David Whelpley. He works for McGuireWoods here in Charlotte. He said, “Just send me an email with everything that we talked and we’ll be in touch.” A couple of days later, they took ourBRIDGE pro bono and they did everything for us. Until today, they are our legal team and they never charged us a dime and it’s been crazy. Then people just gave us the money to pay for the fees because, of course, I didn’t have any money to pay for the fees.
Sil: But we made it and it was crazy and it was amazing. The best part was when we came back and rented the space as ourBRIDGE. Before, we called it The Bridge. It was like a nickname for the for-profit company’s after-school program and we changed it to ourBRIDGE now because it’s not the bridge anymore. It’s our bridge.
We started back without skipping a beat. We applied for a federal grant under our name. We became fairly well-known really quickly, too. There is a foundational here in Charlotte called Reemprise Fund and the founder, Charlie Elberson, he is a risk-taker and he loved the idea. He just gave us two 15-passenger vans to start without even us having any data or a strategic plan or anything.
Mike: [Laughter] Here you go. Have some van.
Sil: “What do you need?”
“I need vans.”
“Okay. Here you go.”
[Laughter] It was crazy, and we started and we just never stopped. We spent in that space, paying a lot of rent, for two years until our program grew and we had a lot of kids on the waiting list. Our program really solidified into kids – it’s for kids that are newly arrived as refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, and we wanted to help them learn English and feel welcomed, help them emotionally through the transition, and help them feel proud of who they are and where they come from because that’s how I feel. I have an accent and I think it’s important for kids to see that it’s okay to have an accent. It means that you’re courageous and it means that you speak another language.
Sil: All of that, we wanted to include into this new program and we did it. It just grew from there. In 2017, Aldersgate found out about us and our work and just came forward and said, “Hey, we have this awesome building. It’s three times bigger than the space you are at now. It has acres of land to play and it’s just a dollar a year.” [Laughter] So, I said, “Okay. Yes. Sure. That works.”
Mike: Wow. That’s just crazy. So, you’ve gotten this big, epic building. You’ve got some vans. You got support from the community.
Mike: Really, this is something that you have grown almost from the onset of its current incarnation, right?
Mike: Then what does ourBRIDGE really mean? What is the origin of that particular name?
Sil: I think the way we see it it’s one day you are thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away in another world. I mean you are in another country speaking another language with completely different social expectations, cultures, traditions, and beliefs. The next day, you’re here and you’re expected – especially from the point of view of a kid, maybe you’ve never held a pencil before because the way that you have lived, I mean we have kids who were born in refugee camps or kids who had a very good, established family unit with businesses, and then war exploded and they had to run. You don’t know what happened before they got here.
Sil: Once they’re here, you need, kids need that transitional space. The bridge is kind of a transition. It’s the place between home and school where you can make it whatever you want it to be. You know what I mean? They can play. They can learn. They learn at their own pace and they learn about what things they love to do and what they can feel free of sharing what they do at home. It’s really that in-between world.
Sil: But that was too long of a name.
Mike: [Laughter] Yeah, that would be a long name. So, the primary mission then is to help young kids integrate while still maintaining their individual and their cultural identities, correct?
Sil: Exactly. Yeah, so we make a huge point into educating the community about the difference between assimilation and integration and acculturation because assimilation really means that the dominant culture supersedes your own culture.
Mike: It kind of takes it over.
Sil: Right, so what we want to do is for kids to balance both because you can actually be both. You can be 100% American. You can be 100% Nepali. Helping kids understand that that’s actually a very positive, beneficial thing for their own selves growing up and it’s nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed.
I tell the OGs, the kids that are going to speak with us in a little bit, all the time I tell them. You need to learn how to speak and write and read in Nepali, because they’re growing older and it’s like they forget. But I keep pushing them because someday they’re going to remember.
Mike: [Laughter] Right.
Sil: They’re like, “I know. I know.” Yeah, so it’s important, and I love it when they come to a center excited to show a new dance that they’re doing … (indiscernible, 00:20:55) performance for one of the festivals. I love that they feel free to show us and everybody at the center about their culture and the traditions and the food. Yeah.
Mike: Yeah. You had mentioned when we were first getting introduced on our very first conversation that you kind of at some point realized that there was somewhat of a lack of support for a lot of non-Christian people.
Mike: You kind of expanded the program to encompass all religions and all walks of life. Tell us. How many nationalities are represented? How many languages are spoken? Why the drive to really focus on those particular elements?
Sil: Yeah, so Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, it’s our district and it’s a huge district. Within the school population in the whole entire county, there are 187 countries represented and there are 195 countries in the world, so almost every country in the world is represented in our public school system. It blows my mind because Charlotte is not LA, New York, or Miami, all these huge, big – you know.
Mike: Yeah, exactly.
Sil: It’s Charlotte and we have about a million people living here. And so many of us come from other places, and that’s just amazing.
A lot of the families that come in come from non-Christian countries. When they come here, before ourBRIDGE, most of the support that they will find will come from churches. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to offer families the opportunity for the kids to be somewhere where religion is not – we talk about it, but it’s not taught.
Sil: The kids teach each other about their religion, but it’s not something that we share with them. It’s completely up to them and their parents. We celebrate—
Mike: They bring it with them.
Sil: Right. Right, and it’s so important for them to teach other kids why they celebrate Ramadan or what’s Holi. We all can celebrate. We can all play together and celebrate Holi.
We have the best – the last day that we had a celebration at the center last year before COVID was Holi. It was the Festival of Colors. They throw the colored powder and the kids loved it. We all loved it and we all learned what it is. The Hindu kids were so crazy talking about it and they felt so proud.
That’s exactly what we do. Yeah, so I thought it was important and I think it’s important for the kids to understand it’s okay to be different, to believe different things and, at the same time, it’s a goal to teach our community about respecting that.
Sil: We don’t have to change who the refugees are. We need to embrace them 100% with their culture, the traditions, the food, and the religion.
Mike: How do you do that? What’s your mechanism to kind of maybe help some people who aren’t familiar with such a broad diversity of ethnicities and religions? How do help people alleviate those fears and how to you ingratiate them to your cause and help them understand what it is that you’re trying to do?
Sil: We have several – well, I do a lot of public speaking doing panels and I go to schools, specifically public schools. I’ve been invited to talk about it many times and I really enjoy it.
Then we have special events at the center, like Welcoming America is one of them that happens every September that our kids dance and we eat food from all over the world. When we talk to people, we share that and we said we are not faith-based. We invite them to come and celebrate.
At the same time, when we have groups of people that want to volunteer, they have to go through orientation – volunteer work or just be close to our kids – go to orientation and we explain why. A lot of times it becomes a very healthy discussion. I think that we are very good at planting the seed of, this is how we do it, why we do it, and we encourage people to actually find or educate themselves or ask questions. Sometimes it doesn’t work and that’s okay.
Charlotte, it’s such a – I love our neighbors. We’ve never had any instances of somebody pushing back on this. We partner with Methodist churches. We partner with the Jewish Community Center. We partner with the Islamic school across the street, the Catholic school across the street, Catholic churches. We have very good partnerships like intra-faith, interfaith partnerships, and it’s beautiful to see how much more we can do together without trying to push our beliefs into the other.
Sil: I think that’s a movement that is growing. Charlotte is evolving a lot. It’s already a lot different than it was when I came or when I started noticing things here, so I think that we’re getting a lot better at respecting and embracing and just welcoming.
Mike: Yeah, for sure. In addition to those services that you offer that are scholastic and integration-based, you also offer a food distribution program that’s pretty epic. Can you tell us more about that?
Sil: Yeah, so the food that we offer our children has always been the utmost importance. As an afterschool program, I remember. I mean I told you that before. The bar is really low about what we can offer our kids.
Mike: I know it’s terrible to laugh, but when you hear about it, it just blows your mind. The concept itself of a bar being so low with something so simple as food and nutrition.
Mike: As a chef, I just can’t wrap my head around it. It’s just so crazy.
Sil: I mean it’s – yeah, sure. I mean there is nutritional value in it, but when you count the blueberries in a muffin as the fresh fruit, that doesn’t count.
Mike: It’s ridiculous.
Sil: No, I mean we made it a point after tons of trial, after years ago giving our kids day old sugary donuts, we realized that of course kids are not eating at school, especially during the first year when they arrive. They don’t know what macaroni and cheese is.
Sil: They may not eat a good breakfast at home. Then they go to school. They skip lunch and then they come to a center and you’re thinking logistic, they’re hungry and they’re not happy, and an unhappy child cannot learn.
Mike: Yeah. They don’t even know what they’re eating.
Sil: Right. They’re not familiar with it. At the same time, we wanted to participate in programs, you know, catered food come to a center, but it may just be a company that we hired to do this through the state or whatever, but it was not appealing to eat at all.
Sil: We ended up wasting a lot of food and money. We decided two years ago to just go above and beyond anything that we have tried before, we so almost – we doubled the amount of money that we spent in food and we partnered with Aldersgate. Aldersgate is amazing. Basically, the subsidized the cost of the food per meal per kid per day.
Sil: We received – we still use the money from the state and they’re super flexible and they allow us to do this, which is fantastic. We receive money from the Jewish Community Center, Sisters of Mercy, and we all – you know, from these different pockets, we put it in a huge bucket and we offer our kids the same quality of meals that Aldersgate residents get. That to me is amazing.
Our kids eat. When they come from school, they get their fresh roasted chicken that has been roasting all day, fresh vegetables, salads, Greek yogurt with berries. The ranch or the dressing for the salad has been done. It’s homemade, done on the day, so it’s just super, super fresh. It’s culturally sensitive. The kids have a say in it.
They eat as much as they can, so it’s not like, “Here’s your plate. Here’s your ration of two ounces of meat and that’s it.” They eat as much as they want. The same thing with the fruits. Throughout the center last year, there were bowls with fruit, as you will have in your house. They would just grab it. That also teaches kids to make better choices for their bodies and understanding why it’s not okay to eat so much sugar. It’s just a balanced diet.
It’s awesome. By the end of the year, we have kids just eating spinach and broccoli. It was great. At the same time, we had a garden and we grew a lot of spices. Not spices. Herbs that we use for cooking club, so that was cool too.
Mike: Yeah. Tell us about that cooking club.
Sil: We have a cooking club. Thursdays was cooking club, so we had robotics, soccer, art. Some of our kids went down to Aldersgate to read with the residents there. That was super sweet. Some kids had the cooking club, and they rotate.
For cooking club, the kids will take turns by culture and they will prepare a recipe. We will take them to the store. It will be like the Nepali store or the Asian market or the Halal store and they will buy the ingredients to their recipe and they will put us to work.
Mike: I love that.
Sil: It was awesome. It was great because it was fun. They would make Manipuri or samosas and whatever. A lot of the kids that did not know or were not from that country, they would like this when they were going around, “What is that?” At the end, we all ate it. It was just amazing.
Sil: It was very cool.
Mike: I love the fact that you focus on, at least whenever possible, trying to make dishes that are culturally appropriate or at least culturally familiar so that they’re enticed to eat. Then you combine that with the fact that it’s fresh and not just some random processed stuff.
Mike: You’re also getting a lot of funding, it seems to be, donation-based. Am I reading into that properly?
Sil: Yeah, so it’s donations, grants. OurBRIDGE, at its core, it’s a community-wide effort. There’s nothing that we can do on our own. We receive funding from several sources and everybody is into this. It’s a whole different approach to after school. Yeah, so that happened during the school year.
When COVID hit, we talked to our parents and we realized that the number one concern was A) having the kids at home all day long, B) losing their jobs left and right. Food was a huge issue and still is. We very fairly quickly decided to just throw out of the window all of our summer plans. Of course, we weren’t going to do any field trips.
We tried for a little bit during the school year, at the end of the school year, the online remote support. We did it. We had some degree of success, but we also realized that kids cannot be on the computer all the time, so we focused 100% on being community present and just getting partnerships and putting all the pieces together to offer family-style meals to families that were registered with ourBRIDGE and families in the neighborhood for, like, Monday through Sunday since then.
Right now, we have – hold on. I wrote it. As of Saturday, we would have provided 131,724 meals.
Mike: That is unbelievable. I think I remember you mentioning that you’re serving somewhere in the vicinity of 3,500 a week or so. Is that right?
Sil: Yeah. Right. Right now. The highest one where we were getting just 1,500 a day from the schools plus like 400, so we were doing about 2,000 a day at some point.
Mike: Man, that is just amazing. That is so cool. The fact that you get help from the community is great. Did you also say that in some cases you’ve also received a helping hand from residents at Aldersgate as well, at least pre-COVID?
Sil: Residents at Aldersgate, they were quarantining pretty hard. [Laughter] We haven’t really seen them and we miss them so much. During the school year, yes. We had residents from Aldersgate coming over helping us with snacks and they would bake cookies and we would go over there and read with them.
Since COVID hitting and Aldersgate being a high-risk population, I know Aldersgate has been really good at keeping them safe. Yeah, so we haven’t; we haven’t seen them.
But Aldersgate is always there. As soon as I have a question, all of them are super responsive and supportive.
Mike: Super cool. As far as working with the kids then, since the COVID situation, how have you had to modify your daily operations?
Sil: We have been working Monday through Friday, Monday through Sunday, basically. A lot of that in the neighborhoods. We created very strict protocols for driving, wearing masks, gloves. Up until—what are we, September—the end of July, everything was outdoors to keep everybody safe.
Now we are kind of preparing for the year and making changes in the building, making space for physical distanced learning. We have been bringing the families that have been in dire need of just connecting because it has been three weeks and the kids have never been into their computers. We have been kind of like – what do you call it? By appointment, just come in and we help the parents, we help the kids, we connect them, and they go on their way.
We make sure that the teachers know that they’re now connected. The parents know what the kids have to catch up with. The kids know how to go, what to do, and so we’ve been doing that. We’ve been doing a lot of support as far as trying to get on the Internet.
Last week, we had our first parent night. It was great to have people back at the center, but we had Burmese Nepali parent night and two Spanish speaking parent nights just to explain what the school is offering and what’s going on.
Mike: Aw, that’s amazing.
Sil: Yeah. Yeah, so it’s been nice to see them again.
Mike: Awesome. Well, then, I think now is the perfect time for us to talk to these OG students that we’ve been alluding to this entire time. What do you say?
Sil: Okay. I’m excited.
Mike: All right, then. Dikchhaya, Prikshya, Babin, Prasant, and Karuna, welcome to the show.
Male: Thank you.
Female: Hi. Thank you for having us.
Male: Yay! We’re here.
Mike: [Laughter] Woo-hoo! Hey, so I am really excited to talk to you all and I would really like to discuss your experience with ourBRIDGE for Kids. As you know, Sil is here with us as well.
I’ve already gotten some background. I know that you’re all from Nepal. We have a lot of cool stuff to talk about, so just to get us started, if you could do us a favor, tell us your name and how old you are. That way we can kind of learn your voices since there are so many of you on. Dikchhaya, let’s start with you.
Dikchhaya Phuyal: Well, I’m Dikchhaya, and I am 15 years old.
Prikshya Bhujel: Hi. I’m Prikshya Bhujel and I am 16 years old.
Babin Mishra: Hi, everyone. My name is Babin Mishra and I’m 15 as well.
Karuna Dhimal: Hi. My name is Karuna and I’m 15 years old.
Prasant Bhujel: My name is Prasant and I’m 13 years old.
Mike: Okay, so you guys are all pretty close in age then. That’s pretty awesome. And if I understand this properly, some of you are actually related, right?
Mike: Okay, so for those of you that are related, are you siblings?
Prikshya: Yes, Prasant is my little brother.
Mike: Ah, gotcha. Okay. For those of you that are not related, did you meet each other for the first time while going through the ourBRIDGE for Kids program?
Karuna: We did meet at the ourBRIDGE program but I’m related to Dikchhaya somehow on my dad’s side and then I’m also related to Babin somehow through my dad’s side, but we’re like distant cousins, not like, you know, first. It’s more like off the family line.
Mike: Ah, I got it. Karuna, what you’re saying is, as far as you all being here and being a part of this program, there are definitely some ties with all of you in some capacity besides just ourBRIDGE, right?
Mike: Cool. Awesome. Now, I came to learn that with the ourBRIDGE program, you don’t necessarily stay in it through the entire length of your scholastic career. Prasant, can you explain to us a little bit about that, for you, how the program works, when you started it, and when did your time with the program officially come to an end, if it actually has yet?
Prasant: I guess I started when I was in kindergarten and I don’t know because I’m in eighth grade right now and if school starts ever and ourBRIDGE starts again, maybe I can go.
Mike: [Laughter] Okay.
Prasant: But right now, I guess, it’s ended.
Mike: All right. Then for those of you who have finished it, when did you complete the scholastic part of the program?
Prikshya: Okay. Well, I think we went until fifth grade. Well, I didn’t go in fifth grade because I was being petty, a little petty. But the others, they went until fifth grade, and then we all moved away, so our locations didn’t fit.
Prikshya: But if we hadn’t, and I don’t think they had middle schoolers then. Did you, Miss Silvia? No, so back then when we used to go to ourBRIDGE, they only went up to fifth grade, so we didn’t have an opportunity to go, like, middle school, so that’s why.
Mike: Ah, yeah, it makes sense. Y’all became known as the OGs because you were back there at the very beginning in the early days and you went through the program. You finished it for the most part, and you kind of became role models for other kids that look up to you. I wanted to ask you. How do you like being referred to as the OGs? Do you think it’s pretty awesome?
Karuna: It feels great because it’s kind of like a long commitment that we’ve had with ourBRIDGE and being the first, original ones, you know. That kind of makes it a little bit special.
Karuna: Well, personally, I think I like the attention, so—
Mike: [Laughter] Karuna likes the attention, huh? Babin, how about you, man? How do you like being referred to as an OG?
Babin: I think ourBRIDGE, it’s an exclusive club. I think OG is like maybe ten people at max, so it’s very exclusive. But I think the great thing about OGs is I think we all will be in the ourBRIDGE sphere forever, and so it’s really good.
Mike: Yeah, I have no doubt. Do you remember who was the first person to refer to you as OGs?
Female: Miss Sil.
Sil: Are you sure? I think I got it from one of you.
Female: Uh-uh. We said we were like the original members and then you started calling us OGs.
Sil: Oh, it could be. It could be, yeah.
Female: I feel like it was Ahmet (phonetic).
Sil: Oh, I think you’re right. I think it was Ahmet.
Mike: Who’s Ahmet?
Sil: Ahmet is another OG. Older. Ahmet was a year older than Prikshya, Babin, Karuna, and Babin. The funny part is, Prikshya, Karuna, Prasant – Prikshya, Karuna, Dikchhaya, and Prasant have been with us, around us forever, constantly, but then Babin, I think, Babin, you moved when you were like in third grade, right, or fourth grade?
Babin: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Sil: He moved to – not even – he moved away from the city, right? Like an hour away. We kind of lost touch. Babin always stayed within the conversation but when we reunited with Babin, Babin was – three Babin, one on top of the other. It was just amazing. That was like 2017 that we kind of reunited. I cried that night because I mean we had this idea of Babin always being there and when he returned, it was amazing.
Mike: Yeah. You guys are part of this amazing group of ourBRIDGE Kids. Within this already amazing group, you are the groundbreaking crew, which is now and forever referred to as the OGs, which I think is freaking awesome. Sil, I meant to ask you then just a final bit of clarification on something we already touched on. What is the normal length of time that people go through the program? Is there an official duration of enrollment? Is there a point where you just say, “Okay. You’ve graduated. You’re now free birds”?
Sil: Up until last year, we had K-8, so Prasant was the first one that actually stayed enrolled in the program since kindergarten up to 8th grade. Last year, we had a little celebration and graduation.
Mike: Oh, awesome.
Sil: Graduating middle school doesn’t mean that they’re going to be over with ourBRIDGE, as you can see.
Mike: For sure.
Sil: I mean they’re going to be coming back for volunteering and for parties and celebrations. We try to keep all of the kids coming back for as long as they want, so really there’s no ending scheduled.
Mike: That makes sense.
Mike: Cool. Then I would like to ask each of you to describe what it was like growing up with ourBRIDGE and, to take that even one step further, why you feel the program is important and how did you come to realize the importance and impact of what you were all involved in.
Dikchhaya: Well, when I first came here, I didn’t really know anything about ourBRIDGE. When I first heard of them, it was like a refugee, immigrant kind of group, right?
Dikchhaya: We just started going there and they started teaching us and, like, that’s where our English developed. You know?
Dikchhaya: Like as of now, I’m fluent. We’re fluent because of it. It’s a diverse group, not only Nepali, anything. It’s all diverse.
Dikchhaya: Yeah. I’d say that.
Mike: Yeah. Thanks, Dikchhaya. That’s great. I’m assuming then that each of you actually still speaks Nepali on a regular basis.
Mike: Cool, so each of you is now bilingual.
Mike: Then, Dikchhaya, I am curious. Was there a part of the experience that really stuck with you, that really resonated with you? Did you realize the significance of what you were involved in when you started doing this, and even now, I supposed?
Dikchhaya: Well, my English, my reading skills got better because of the tutors there, like Miss Linda and all the other tutors.
Dikchhaya: As of now, I’m speaking like this, so it’s because of them, I would say.
Mike: Yeah. For sure. Prikshya, what was your experience then? How did you feel as you were working your way through school and all of the cool activities that you got to do at ourBRIDGE?
Prikshya: Well, it was very educational. Like Dikchhaya said, when we came here or when we started ourBRIDGE, we didn’t know any English at all. Maybe we knew how to say, like, “hi” and “bye,” but it was very hard communicating.
I felt like we would often say some Nepali words to Miss Silvia and them, maybe, for communicating.
Prikshya: But we had Miss Linda, who always brought one of the kids into a little station thing and made us read. She made us read books and, as more we grew our reading grade levels, the more harder the books got, so that really helped us improve our reading skills and our communication skills and our grammar. I feel like if it wasn’t for ourBRIDGE, I would not be that good with my English right now because I’ve seen a lot of people who came to America for years and their English is not still that good.
Mike: Yeah. [Laughter]
Prikshya: But I feel like I would be the same if it was not for ourBRIDGE. You know what I mean?
Mike: Yeah. Absolutely. Prasant, why don’t you tell us about your experience with ourBRIDGE?
Prasant: Well, I guess my experience with the program was awesome because, like the others mentioned, their English was not that good, and Miss Linda helped us grow. But when you asked Dikchhaya the significance of ourBRIDGE—
Prasant: –I think the day I realized that is when I got to go to Washington, D.C. to have a chance to talk with the – I don’t know who it was. It was some important people about the ourBRIDGE after schools. I think from that day, I realized, oh, dang, I have a big job. I need to make sure ourBRIDGE is worldwide known so more kids can come here and have the same experience like we do.
Mike: Yeah, that’s absolutely amazing. You actually got to represent the organization. Can you dig a little deeper on that for us?
Prasant: Well, I guess one day Miss Sil came up to us and said, “Do you want to go to Washington, D.C., and talk to the people?” I was like, “Okay. Why not?” Then she was like, you need to get ready for your speeches and stuff like that.
It was about how we need to save ourBRIDGE. Not ourBRIDGE. We need to save other after schools so they can get the same, I guess, money so they can help their kids grow and they can get them, like, school. Like the teachers don’t get enough money to pay for the students to learn or get education better, so I guess that’s the same thing with ourBRIDGE that I got the chance to go to Washington, D.C. for.
Mike: That’s awesome, man. You got to share some personal testimonials in the hopes of maybe getting more funding for the program or getting the word out about what benefits ourBRIDGE has to society.
Mike: Cool. Sil, would you mind elaborating on that just a little more for us, please?
Sil: It was ourBRIDGE, like many after school programs, receive federal funding from a grant called 21st Century. At the time, 21st Century funding was going to be eliminated from the federal fiscal budget, so several advocacy groups in D.C. reached out to us and to a few other groups in the country to actually go to D.C. with families and kids and advocate for the importance of 21st Century after school programs.
I reached out to Prasant and Prikshya’s family. We actually went with their mom and another former ourBRIDGE kid who is now in the university. The kids got to practice their speeches and they met at the offices of Congressman Tillis, Congressman Bur, and Congresswoman Alma Adams. I was mind-blown by how eloquent and how prepared they were. It was fantastic.
Mike: Yeah, that’s pretty incredible. You guys are part of a program now that is definitely known on a national level.
Sil: Oh, yeah.
Mike: Karuna, how about you? You want to tell us your experience with all of this?
Karuna: To be honest, my experience with ourBRIDGE, in the beginning, was kind of rocky because I have this vivid memory of how – so we took a bus to ourBRIDGE after school. Then the bus would first stop at where our house was, like our house stop, and some of us would get off instead of going there and I was one. I was in my rebellious form. Oh, my gosh. Me and Dikchhaya and a couple of others would get off. Right, Babin? You remember. [Laughter] Because we didn’t want to go.
Miss Sil, one day, she got in her van. She knocked on all of our doors and she was like, “Get up. You’re going right now.” [Laughter]
Sil: Right, because your parents weren’t at home and you were supposed to be at the center.
Karuna: Yeah, so ever since then, since that happened, we came up with, like, a contract with Miss Sil that every Monday we didn’t have to go. We could get off at home at our stops. That memory is still vivid because now when I look back at it, like, why did I do that? It was an amazing phase. When I was about to graduate, I remember, like, I’d moved houses, too, and they didn’t have a middle school program, so I was so sad because I was close with a lot of the teachers and the students and then I wouldn’t have that experience after school anymore.
I wouldn’t get that homework help anymore. I was really kind of frustrated. I was like, how am I going to do my homework if I’m stuck on a question or something. I don’t know because whenever that happened to me, tutors would help me.
For example, this one time in fifth grade, I had to do this poster. It was – what was it? I think it was a fair or something and I had to make up—
Prikshya: The science fair?
Karuna: Yeah, the science fair, and I had no idea how to do that, but one of the tutors helped me, step-by-step, come up with what I wanted to do, and make a poster. Got all the supplies for me. So, honestly, when I was about to leave it, I was really sad. I felt like … (indiscernible, 00:52:43) support from them and not have that second family to go to anymore.
Mike: Somehow, I don’t think that would ever be in the cards for you. I think you guys are bonded forever, clearly.
Prikshya: Forever and ever. [Laughter]
Mike: Aw! Now, obviously, through this kind of a program, you’ve all learned English and you all speak very well. You’ve been able to navigate your way through the scholastic system, homework, and all of that mumbo-jumbo, and you got to do all kinds of cool things. I’m curious then, what do your folks think about the program? Where they excited as they saw all the ways you progressed through the years at ourBRIDGE? Prikshya, why don’t you answer that one?
Prikshya: I’m sure that my parents are the most grateful people in the world because of how much they have helped us. Every time, even if it was financial wise or we needed help on, like, paying for some bills or translating some—you know what I mean—just lawful stuff—they would be like, “Contact us. We will help you,” and that is just very, like – you don’t have a person like that to do that to you. Normal people do not have people to help them with, like, maybe paying taxes or something. But ourBRIDGE would always say, “If you ever need help translating or help to how to fill this out, you can always call on us. We will always help you.” That is very generous and we are really grateful for that.
Because of ourBRIDGE, their kids, which is us, we’ve really grown and we know how to speak fluent English and we can help our parents now. I’m pretty sure they’re the most grateful people for that.
Mike: Yeah, that’s actually a pretty big thing, I think, that a lot of people have that ability to do a little bit of a role reversal. You spend the first part of your life; your parents take care of you and kind of get the ball rolling for you. Now you have the chance to do the same for them, to help them acclimate, which I think is pretty awesome.
Prikshya: Yeah, like me and my brother, we’ve taught our dad and now he speaks better than us.
Mike: What?! [Laughter] That’s epic. Clearly, you all have a deep love for this program and I get a really good understanding after speaking with you kind of some of the things that it entails. I’d like to know then, what were some of your favorite activities or things you got to do at ourBRIDGE. Babin, let’s start with you.
Babin: I think my favorite activity we ever did was probably around Halloween time, and so I think every kid had a pumpkin, right? We would carve it, put our hands in it, and then Halloween was definitely my favorite time, especially costume-wearing as well. It was awesome at ourBRIDGE.
Mike: Yeah, so you liked the costumes but you also liked to dig around inside that nasty pumpkin and pull out all the guts?
Babin: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Babin: It was awesome.
Mike: That is pretty sweet. Dikchhaya, how about you? What are some of your favorite activities or things that you got to do?
Dikchhaya: Every Friday, I had fun, so anything they did. Well, my friends, they were not the sporty type, you know, at that time, so I would usually go outside and play soccer and all that.
Mike: Oh, so you liked to do soccer and sports and stuff like that.
Mike: Prasant, didn’t I hear that you played basketball? Would you say that that was maybe one of your favorite activities that you got to do?
Prasant: No, I think my favorite activity to the day I die would be smoothie day. That was so fun.
Mike: [Laughter] Did you say smoothie day?
Prasant: Smoothie day, like we’d have money, right? Then they would tell us, like, the prices of different ingredients. It was helping – what’s it called? – up our math skills but, at the same time, having fun.
Mike: Okay, so you would go buy smoothies, or were you guys making the smoothies?
Prasant: You would go tell them what ingredient you want and the money, and then you would give them the fake money and they would make it for you. But I think that was an occasional thing.
Sil: It’s once a year. We still do it. We transform the entire center like a smoothie shop and each child has an amount of fake money, you know, monopoly money. Then we have all the ingredients in the board and each child can choose whatever they want and each ingredient has a different amount, a different cost, so they have to calculate how much. I think the older kids these days have to actually include the taxes and the tip. Yeah, so they still do it every year and also the pumpkin. That’s another annual tradition.
Mike: That’s really cool, so they’re actually learning the e-commerce side of things as well.
Sil: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Mike: Right on. Prikshya, I think it’s your turn.
Prikshya: Okay. Like Babin said when we were, like, in fourth grade, we used to – Halloween day, we used to decorate the whole center. Do you remember the decorations? We’d put strings all over and spiders and ghosts and it used to be a blast to do it with your friends and it was really enjoyable. I remember one time Babin dressed up like a vampire.
Mike: Oh, yeah? [Laughter]
Prikshya: I dressed up like Cinderella, so that was really fun.
Mike: Awesome. Karuna, I don’t think we’ve heard from you yet, so what do you say?
Karuna: Okay, so one of my favorite times is, every Thursday we had club day, right? I think it was every Thursday. Then it was, I think, around third grade or fourth grade, we had this wonderful opportunity, some of the girls, to go to this dance study and learn how to dance.
Sil: Oh, yes!
Karuna: Then we had to present a dance and that was really wonderful. It was my first time ever dancing. [Laughter] We did it for like a whole year. We practiced for a whole year, the whole routine, and then we would present it in front of everybody, which was kind of embarrassing but a great experience.
Mike: Oh, there’s nothing embarrassing about that. I think any time you get to do a live performance and display your talents, it’s giving people a chance to see another side of you that they may not get to see as often, so I think that’s super cool.
All right, so I’ve got just one more question for you all to kind of bring us home here. If you could say something to the community, and even the world, about the impact that the program has had on you and that you think it has had on kids in general, what would you say to people? How would you let people know that this is a really important program? Prikshya, what are your thoughts?
Prikshya: Well, I would tell them about how much they have helped me and helped a lot of other people and how much it would help their kids. You’re not forced to join but it would be a really good idea or maybe the best idea you would ever make in your lifetime to join.
Mike: [Laughter] Best idea ever, huh?
Mike: Awesome. All right, Karuna, let’s hear from you on this one.
Karuna: For me, personally, ourBRIDGE has kind of driven me to try harder because I would always be doing my homework because I wanted to succeed in life later, and also it’s made me more openminded. I’m just more openminded to other cultures and LGBT because whenever we would talk about those subjects, Miss Sil would always be like, it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with being a little bit different. Different is good. Flaws are okay. That’s just the mindset I’ve grown up with thanks to ourBRIDGE.
Mike: That’s a great mindset to have, for sure. Prasant, what would you say to people?
Prasant: I would tell them how diverse it is. There are so many different cultures represented. In the new center, we have this chart, pie chart, that shows all the different countries that the kids come from. There are some tutors that help you in some of your strengths and weaknesses. Let’s say you want to learn sports. We have Mr. Nate for basketball and Mr. – I forgot the other tutor’s name. For soccer, I think we – who plays soccer at the center?
Sil: Mr. Carlos?
Prasant: I don’t know who that is.
Sil: Mr. Carlos likes soccer.
Prasant: Oh, Mr. – oh, yeah, Mr. Carlos likes soccer too, so I guess we have different tutors that can help you in different sports. Like Miss Lucy can help you in baseball. We used to play baseball. Let’s see – I think that’s all I know of right now. But it’s just very awesome.
Mike: [Laughter] It definitely is very awesome. Babin, what do you want to say to the world about ourBRIDGE?
Babin: I think I would probably tell them about the cultural impact that ourBRIDGE has. There are so many countries at ourBRIDGE, so many kids, so many different ideas and people just coming together to learn and all that and so it’s really great if you want to learn about a bunch of different cultures and stuff.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. All right, Dikchhaya. Closing this one out with you.
Dikchhaya: I would tell them how ourBRIDGE is involved in the community. As people would donate some things and people who didn’t have much money and all that, they could have that. I would tell them that ourBRIDGE is free of cost and it’s a fun place for young kids to learn about different cultures and to learn new things. OurBRIDGE treat their kids as their own with love and I would say that’s a good experience for everyone to have.
Mike: I think you’re right. Well, I know that each of you is going to be forever involved in the program whether it’s just coming back for a visit from time-to-time or helping out with different programs. I think that’s beyond awesome and I want to thank all of you for hanging out with us today and sharing your perspectives. I think it’s important that the world hear from the people who have been through such an amazing program. Congratulations to each of you for being successes and for doing so well for yourselves. I think you’re all amazing and truly inspirational. Thank you so much.
Karuna: Thank you.
Dikchhaya: Thank you.
Prikshya: Thank you so much and thank you for having us.
Mike: Yeah. Sil, thank you for being so awesome and making this whole thing happen.
Sil: Oh, thank you, and thank you all, kids. I love you so much.
Prikshya: Thank you, Miss Silvia. We love you more.
Babin: Bye, everyone.
Mike: Wow. That was just amazing.
Sil: They are amazing. They’re amazing kids.
Mike: Definitely. Now, I just had a couple of more final closing questions for you. We’ve talked about all the things that the program provides and all the things that you provide and all the things that you’re doing for the community and for the world. Now it’s time to ask, what can people do to support you and to support ourBRIDGE for Kids?
Sil: Oh, wow. I learned through – if there’s one thing from COVID that I learned is that partnerships and awareness go a long, long, long way. You never know who knows who or who can guide you to the right advice. One easy thing is, yes, donate. Right? Write a check and help us.
But go beyond and think, what connections do you have that would help us make other connections to create a better, bigger network of support? I think that has been the only reason why we were able to do this 131,000 meals. It wasn’t because just people donated. It was because just people came forward and said, “Hey, I know this person,” or “I heard of this opportunity,” or “I know the owner of this restaurant,” and just always being aware that everyone can support and be part of this whether they can write a check or not.
I would love people to just reach out and learn about us and learn about our approach and just ask questions. The other part is awareness of what our families are going through but also how important they are to the health of our community. Not just because of the contributions they make but because they’re human beings and because they are our neighbors and because it is our community. Yeah.
Mike: Where can they find you online? Do you have a website? Do you have social media pages?
Sil: Yeah, so the website is joinourbridge.org. We are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, @ourbridgekids.
Mike: All right. What final thoughts do you have as we close this out? What else would you like to say to the world about the program and the impact it has had on so many lives?
Sil: I would love to grow this program to the point where every child who is new to the United States can have a place to go like ourBRIDGE. I don’t know how to get there. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I know there are people out there that can help us make it happen either with experience, guidance. We need to figure out how to make it replicable and how to take it to other places because the need is there.
Imagine if every child who doesn’t speak English yet could go to a place like ourBRIDGE, everywhere in the country. That’s the ultimate goal. The sky is the limit. I know we can do it. We know how to do it. We know what it takes. We need the expertise and that hand to help us get there. Yeah, that would be very cool. It will be for the kids that attend the program in every state in the country but also for the entire community in that county, in that city. That would be amazing.
Mike: That would be amazing and I for one think it’s an incredible program. Bless you for what you’re doing. I think it’s helping to make the world a better place, for sure. If all of you out there in radio land and podcast land want to help out, you want to learn more, reach out to Sil, reach out to ourBRIDGE Kids. Go to their website. Check them out on social media. Like the pages. Share the pages. Follow the pages and tell everybody in the world about them. That’s just one small step that we can do to help out this amazing organization.
Sil, thank you so much for joining us here today on Aldersgate OnAir. You are an absolute blast to talk to and I’m excited to see what the future holds for you and ourBRIDGE.
Sil: Thank you so much. Have a great, great, great day, Mike.
Mike: Thanks again to Sil, Dikchhaya, Prikshya, Prasant, Babin, and Karuna for taking the time to hang out with us today. As you can tell, Sil is very passionate about ourBRIDGE for Kids. She has worked wonders for countless numbers of kids and families and really taken a grassroots organization and grown it into so much more than anyone thought possible.
How about those kids? How cool was it to hear from them first-hand about what ourBRIDGE has meant to them? But don’t just take my word for it. Reach out to ourBRIDGE by going to their website at joinourbridge.org and following them on all their social media. You’ll get an even bigger picture of what they’re really all about and how many lives they truly impact.
Don’t forget to send us your thoughts, questions, comments, and ideas to [email protected] so we can keep on keeping you entertained and informed.
Now don’t even think about going anywhere because we’re not done with ourBRIDGE yet. This is only part one. Coming up next in part two, I speak to an Aldersgate resident who has an amazing story of self-discovery and how he turned that discovery into a vehicle to become a mentor for some ourBRIDGE kids. Stick around and I’ll talk to you very soon at Aldersgate OnAir.