Boise, United States

Making Friends and Sharing Dreams: International Summer Youth Program

City of Boise, Dept. of Parks and Recreation

April 17, 2013

A summer program pairs students from the refugee community with native born peers to encourage new friendships and mutual understanding across cultures.

When refugee families arrive in Boise, Idaho, from faraway places like Burma, Bhutan, Iraq or the Democratic Republic of Congo, they have great hopes for the future, not least of which is an education for their children.

Many refugee parents are surprised to learn that schools in the United States take a three-month summer recess, leaving their kids with much idle time and the parents often wondering how they will continue to learn and settle in. From an academic standpoint, experience has shown that most students lose some of the knowledge gained in school because of the long break.

The long summer break does not serve these young people well. For students with limited English proficiency, the knowledge loss can increase to several months of grade-level equivalency, effectively widening the achievement gap in relation to their higher income, native English speaking peers. In addition to a steeper learning curve, refugee youth also face challenging obstacles to social adjustment and integration in the public school system.

When state funding cuts threatened Boise schools summer programming and other opportunities for middle school students, a group of local stakeholders took up the challenge to find a solution.

Collective action

In the spring of 2012, the Idaho Office for Refugees convened a group of stakeholders to consider a plan to counteract the negative impact of program cuts, with the goal of keeping refugee students actively engaged in learning and socializing over the summer. The group included teachers and administrators from the Boise and neighboring Meridian school districts, refugee resettlement agencies, Boise Parks and Recreation, Boise State University, and local agencies like the YMCA. Out of a handful of brainstorming sessions and planning meetings, Boise’s first International Summer Youth Program was born, built on the concept of peer mentoring and intercultural exchange.

Although planners had a great deal of experience in youth programming, the idea of pairing refugee students with native born peers was new. Starting with a small scale project to test the feasibility of the concept, the planning group agreed to target middle school age youth (grades 6—8) and to offer enrollment to recently arrived refugee students and native peers who were struggling in school, academically or socially. A special outreach effort was made  to reach American youth and their families with an interest in culture and language exchange. The goals of the two-week program were to introduce refugee youth to the larger Boise community; to promote academic and cultural literacy; and to develop a greater appreciation of world cultures among all students.

Who am I? Creating self-portraits

Program activities included creative ways to help students explore notions of personal and cultural identity. Program instructor, Revital Zilonka, currently a PhD candidate in bilingual education, developed an activity that addressed the question, “who am I?” To begin, the class  created their own life maps. Students were asked to think about how a life map would look and how their language, culture and experience would shape this map. Students discussed how geography shapes culture and language, and how culture and language relate to history and immigration. Each student then created a life-sized self-portrait using symbols, magazine clippings and other images, in addition to their own drawings. This activity gave each student an opportunity to express personal creativity and to connect it to their culture and experience, as well as an opportunity for cooperation when students took turns outlining his or her figure on the paper.

Discussions ranged from children’s rights to what a  perfect world might look like. One student visualized equality, another food security, and yet another “no bullying; everyone would have friends and love; and there would be no poor and none too wealthy and no one would be judged for where they’re from.”

But it wasn’t all serious. An important part of the summer program was daily physical activity. The game of choice? Soccer.

Lasting Impact

Rachel and Fatimah at the Boise International Summer Program, 2012. Permission: Boise Weekly

Testimonials from both students and parents speak to the impact and value of the International Summer Youth Program. Rachel, a middle-school Boise native, was surprised by her experience. “I thought everybody—the people from different countries all around the world—would all be so different,” she said. “When I came here, I realized that everybody is just the same. Some people have different colors of skin or some people speak different languages, but that’s it.” During the two-week program, Rachel became best friends with Fatima, whose family had recently arrived in Boise from Iraq.

Another student’s parent observed: “My daughter’s friend was impressed by the refugee youth and how brave they have been in their young lives—not just during war and upheaval, but in coming to a new country and going to school where they didn’t speak the language. Both girls made friends with refugee girls.”


The partnerships gained across local organizations and agencies were an indispensable factor in the overall success of the program, building on the infrastructure and expertise of the stakeholders involved. For Paul Scheonfelder, manager at Boise Parks and Recreation, collaboration was the key to the program’s success: “We were able to tap into the organizations’ strengths and resources to make the program happen. Boise Parks and Recreation has the background, skills, and infrastructure in place to run a summer camp.” The school districts, charter schools and refugee agencies were able to reach out to students and their families, while Boise State University provided curriculum guidance and helped recruit the instructor for the program. Other community resources included the use of the local community center as a home base, along with support staff, transportation for field trips, a registration system to sign up for the program, and a city scholarship fund that is available to all low income youth.

The value of the summer program for all involved was immense and plans for a second 2013 season are underway. For program leader Zilonka, “the most amazing thing was to be able to communicate with [kids] who didn’t speak English at all . . . Non-English speakers and English speakers bonded, cooperated, played together, shared food, went to many activities, and had fun. It was one of my best experiences ever as a human being and as an educator. It was a beautiful and precious experience to be part of these kids’ two weeks of summer camp.”

Making it Work for You:

  • Bring diverse communities together in the ordinary spaces that individual community members share in their day-to-day lives: the playground and recreational areas,  shopping districts or schools in the neighbourhood. It’s the interaction that counts.
  • Find ways to communicate out more broadly about the project, so that it's not only those who are directly involved who are impacted by the cross-cultural experience, but the community as a whole is hearing positive stories of people coming together across racial and ethnic lines to build greater understanding.
  • Sustaining the involvement of municipal governments can be challenging, especially after leadership transitions. Finding ways to involve diverse city agencies in your work, and cultivating key champions both within and outside of city government is important. Cross-sectoral efforts are most sustainable.