Soft Landing Missoula has made incredible strides in just one year. What started as a small group of dedicated volunteers with a vision of helping refugees resettle in Missoula has developed into a thriving organization with a community resource center and 3 employees serving more than 30 refugee families and the wider Missoula community. We have grown into a sustainable organization that provides reliable information about refugee resettlement to the community, and that our refugee families look to for learning, support and opportunities.
In October 2016, Soft Landing Missoula (SLM) opened our Community Resource Center, complete with offices, a childcare room, a classroom, a computer lab and a donation area. We staffed the office with a 30-hours-a-week Executive Director and a 20-hour-a-week Program Director. In June, we brought on an additional 20-hour-a-week staff member and increased our program director to 25 hours a week. We have offered English classes, driver’s education classes and computer classes since November 2016. Refugees come to the center every day for classes with free childcare, to use the computer lab and to pick up needed donations. They find support and community when they walk in the door.
We have recently expanded our tutoring reach, by offering one-on-one in-home classes by request. We have partnered with the Lifelong Learning Center and the IRC to develop a class for potential tutors to gain useful skills for teaching English to adults and children. This tutoring has ranged from basic English help to studying for tests such as driver’s licensing, engineering credentials, and the GED. We were also able to respond to Missoula County Public Schools English tutoring needs and have assisted them by recruiting over 30 volunteers that are in the schools every day providing language tutoring support for English Language Learners.
We continue to manage in-kind donations from the community, both at the Center, and at our storage unit which we rent in partnership with the IRC and the Seventh Day Adventist Church. These donations are used to furnish homes for incoming refugees as well as provide additional support to families that have been here a bit longer. We host different drives throughout the year (toiletry kits, warm clothing, etc.) as well as helping groups from around the state find a way to give to refugees in Missoula. Starting in November, our Community Center also began to host an Emergency Food Pantry in partnership with The Montana Food Bank Network.
In addition to the Center and the direct services provided to our families, SLM continues our strong education and outreach program. SLM partnered with the University of Montana to present four lectures in the past year. We organized experts to speak about refugee resettlement and the history and conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and Iraq. Each lecture was attended by 200-300 people and was positively received by the community.
SLM staff also participated in more than 20 community meetings to address concerns and dispel misunderstandings about refugees and the resettlement process. Staff spoke to church groups, classes at the University, state-wide conferences, community groups like Rotary and Kiwanis, and more. We have traveled to Kalispell, Helena, Bozeman, Butte, Great Falls and Hamilton in response to invitations from groups across the state. We are even helping to organize a statewide coalition of refugee supporters.
In Spring 2017, SLM hosted 20 community members in a two-day leadership training about defusing tension and facilitating community conversations about refugees. This training was the second “challenging conversations” workshop that we have done and we are refining and building a curriculum that can be replicated each year or possibly more. We have partnered with Empower Montana, Imagine Nation Brewing, and the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center for these educational workshops.
SLM partnered with the IRC to recruit and train more than 100 volunteers to work on small Family Mentor Teams to assist and support each refugee family with initial orientation and integration. During the past year, the IRC has gradually taken over the duties of training and overseeing these volunteers as they have increased their own capacity through greater staffing. SLM continues to work with the Family Mentor Teams to help connect their refugee families to needed community resources as well as fun social activities. We continue to recruit and train volunteers for SLM programing and events.
June 2017 marked SLM’s first annual World Refugee Day Cup and Community Celebration. In partnership with Missoula’s Parks and Recreation, we hosted a day-long soccer tournament, followed by a community celebration with free dinner and music. The event was attended by more than 200 people and will become an annual fundraiser for us. The day was a huge hit with both the Missoula community members and the refugee families that participated.
We also participated this year in Welcoming Week, hosting or co-hosting nine events that spanned the 9-day period! These events included 3 “cultural” experiences: an Eritrean coffee ceremony, a play put on by the Congolese families, and a dinner at Caffe Dolce with guest chefs from Iraq and Syria. None of these events were fundraisers for SLM; instead, donations directly benefited the participating families. These events were some of the first opportunities for Missoulians to see, hear, taste, and celebrate the new cultures that refugees have brought to our city.
Following the excitement of these events and the experience of hosting five families to sell food and coffee at the Missoula Farmer’s Market this year, we are researching the possibilities of creating a SLM “United We Eat” program. This initiative helps individuals who would like to explore an entrepreneurial path in the food industry gain skills, licenses, and experience by attending workshops, participating in events, and working closely with the Health Department and other partners, all with the guidance of a volunteer mentor from the Missoula food community. Through the events in this program such as a monthly “Supper Club,” SLM would also continue to promote the sharing of culture, tradition and welcome through food.
Soft Landing Missoula continues to be proactive with our fundraising efforts, raising more than 100 percent of our 2017 budget as of July 2017. Through grants, individual donations and planned fundraisers, our budget allowed us to add a part-time volunteer coordinator in June. We will continue with diligence to ensure the long term sustainability of our organization.
SLM has continued to stay in the local, national, and international media spotlight, including well-known media outlets such as the BBC, YES Magazine and the LA Times. A documentary on our work produced by Starbucks as part of their “Upstanders” series came out in early fall. With this very positive press, we are able to inspire others to do what they can to stand up for refugees and we have received many personal responses from people around the world to this effect.
As 2018 approaches, we are excited to continuing developing our events, education and outreach, and more. Our second annual soccer tournament, the World Refugee Day Cup, will coincide with the global celebration of World Refugee Day and will take place June 16, 2018. In September, we look forward to participating in Welcoming Week once again – we will surely re-invent some of our hits from last year, like the Eritrean coffee ceremony and another Congolese play, and will look forward to finding new ways to partner with our Missoula community to make this week educational and exciting. Our lecture series will continue, as well. While we don’t have a date on the calendar quite yet, we are looking ahead to February to line up our next “SLM Presents” event.
We were lucky to be invited to speak at many local and statewide community events last year, ranging from Billings to Hamilton to the Flathead. This year, SLM looks forward to taking a more proactive approach for these conversations. We will seek out opportunities to educate about the refugee resettlement process, dispel concerns, and share ways that people can make a difference at SLM and in their community. We hope this will include a monthly “Coffee Conversations” in partnership with the International Rescue Committee to provide a space for learning more about resettlement, as well as voicing questions and concerns.
Sponsoring the individuals at the Farmer’s Market this summer was one of our most exciting accomplishments this year. Because of the amazing reception from the Missoula community, we are eager to continue our food entrepreneurial programs. We are working with the Health Department to set up workshops and food certification classes for the people who are interested in providing food via catering opportunities, wholesale production, etc. Many local partners, like Burns Street Bistro, Caffe Dolce, and Masala have come forward to express interest in working with us on this project. We will start partnering with these restaurants to host monthly “Supper Clubs” through a new program called United We Eat. While we are still working out a lot of the logistics, the Missoula community is literally hungry for events like this and we know it will be a success!
Here at SLM, we are also partnering with the Montana Food Bank Network to start a small food pantry. Similar to our clothing/kitchen donation space, people can come in to take food pantry goods whenever they need them. With the addition of this food pantry, we are able to help alleviate hunger in times of a short term increased need or crisis situation.
Finally, we will continue to be adaptive in the services we offer at our community center. We will seek feedback from the IRC, other institutions, and individuals to create/adjust English class offerings, Driver’s Education, and more. We certainly don’t have a shortage of volunteers at this point, so we are braced to develop more programming as soon as we establish the need.