Franciscan Brother in formation, Mark Holbert has always had a heart for serving others, especially when it comes to helping children and families who are new to the United States.
While pursuing a master’s degree in International Education Administration at Michigan State University, Holbert volunteered as a part-time case manager at St. Vincent Catholic Charities Refugee Services in Lansing, Michigan.
When he moved to Orlando in May, he joined the Pastoral staff at San Pedro Center and assists with anything from retreat group hospitality to preparation for liturgies. He is currently a postulant, discerning to see if the Franciscan life is a good fit for his vocation.
Shortly after his arrival, he reached out to Catholic Charities of Central Florida to become a volunteer with its Immigration and Refugee Services.
“I wanted to find ways to help Catholic Charities and be a mentor to their refugee clients,” said Holbert. He met with Jennifer Powers, Refugee Resettlement Services Case Manager at Catholic Charities, to find out what their needs were and how he could help.
“Refugee children and families often struggle to speak English when they first arrive in our country. Through case management, our resettlement services provide resources to help families transition into a new culture,” said Powers. “Mark has been a wonderful mentor to our clients – teaching English and creating a unique opportunity for our Refugee Youth Program.”
The Refugee Youth Program provides a minimum of eight hours of academic mentoring per month to refugee children ranging in age from six to 18 to help them integrate, adjust and succeed academically, in the community and at home.
Teaming up with Katrina Hamilton, the Youth Program Director at San Pedro Center, Holbert developed a partnership with Catholic Charities that makes it possible for refugee children and their case managers to use classroom space at San Pedro Center for their mentoring sessions.
“We used to have to meet in parks or libraries or simply in client’s homes. San Pedro has been a blessing for our program – providing a safe place to gather the children together to learn,” said Maria Diez, Refugee Youth Program Coordinator. “The children can socialize and connect with other children who are going through the same cultural transition.”
In addition, Holbert and Hamilton prepare fun and educational group activities each week for the children to learn the English language and American culture.
“The purpose is for the young people to have fun while they learn,” said Holbert.
The Youth Refugee Program is currently serving children from countries including Iraq, Cuba, Haiti, Congo and Sudan. Florida has the largest refugee population in the U.S. with more than 27,000 resettling in the state annually. While the majority of Florida’s refugee clients come from Cuba, the state is home to refugees from 97 different countries.
“We are very grateful to have the opportunity to help in a small way, to welcome the newcomers in our community and hope to continue to do so,” said Holbert, who is currently planning activities to teach the children about Christmas, including an opportunity to see a live nativity.