JFS of Greenwich & GCDS Partner on Summer Program for Refugee Children at French Farm

Recently, Greenwich Country Day School and Jewish Family Services of Greenwich collaborated to create an unforgettable experience for JFS refugee children at the serene French Farm in Greenwich. Thirty-five children from the JFS of Greenwich refugee program ranging in age from three years to fourteen years, participated in a host of engaging activities.

These children did not have access to camps, enrichment programs, or summer travel. Truly special relationships were formed among children from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Venezuela, and Syria.

Jen Donnalley, Director at the GCDS Center for Public Good, who spearheaded this initiative, commented, “We had a magical two weeks together. I loved having the opportunity to spend time learning from, and laughing with these kids who are brave and resilient. They reminded us every day that human connections have no language barrier.”

GCDS developed a wide-ranging curriculum including nature exploration, gardening, African drumming and singing, cooking, science experimentation, painting, animal care, cooking and soccer.

Creative arts and crafts included marble mazes, nature collages, friendship bracelets, butterfly masks and desk pets. The French Farm created a comfortable environment that reminded many of the children of some of the familiar activities that they experienced during peacetime in their home countries, such as daily chicken feeding in Ukrainian villages. The oldest group of children prepared a daily lunch, ranging from English muffin pizzas to yogurt parfaits. They enjoyed learning to make sweet treats such as chocolate covered pretzels and exquisite Rice Krispie creations.

During the second week, the children were exposed to the culinary delights from the home countries of their new friends. The international menu included tabouli salad from Syria, arepas from Venezuela, potato piroshki from Ukraine, and a delicious Afghan chicken and rice spread on their last day.

A Ukrainian mother proudly shared with her case manager, “Every day Yana would get up full of enthusiasm and excitement for the day ahead at the GCDS summer program! These past two weeks brought out a joy in my daughter that I have not seen in her since before the war in Ukraine began!”

One of the new Syrian clients was nervous about registering for the summer program, but after her first week, she was making new friends, weaving friendship bracelets, and learning a new sport – baseball!

A Ukrainian teenager who was relatively quiet during the first few days, was break-dancing at the talent show on his last day as his new friends cheered him on. One of our Venezuelan clients stated, “Jose’s self-esteem increased throughout this program and especially since he got to eat Venezuelan food.” She was thrilled that he felt at home and thanked us for giving her son “the opportunity to live moments filled with joy and integration.”

The daily laughter and smiles from the children as they fed the chickens, designed race cars, and participated in hula hoop competitions, was very special.

Maddie Malone, a JFS summer intern from Greenwich High School said, “in my first days I saw the incredible connections that the kids were making with each other despite their language barriers. Seeing how happy they were made me so happy; it was contagious.”

Sara Alarjawi, an Arabic-speaking volunteer from Syria, was instrumental in making our five Syrian children feel at ease.

“I was overjoyed to see them so happy. I remember when I was in their shoes,” she said. “These are probably the hardest years of their lives. They have all experienced challenges that have made them grow up quickly, so it was wonderful to see them just be kids. They got to interact with each other in English without the school pressure.”

JFS is grateful to Jen Donnalley for taking a chance on this vision and implementing the program
seamlessly, and with pure joy. She was able to recruit a high-caliber team of staff members, student
volunteers and other GCDS supporters to make this idea come to life in a short period of time. The
photo scrap books that each child created on the last day will be a cherished memory. The program helped these children during a time of uncertainty and new beginnings, and infused life-changing joy
into their lives.