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Adopt-A-Refugee-Family Project: A "How-To"

Anyone can help a refugee family settle in the United States, even with few resources. We secured most items for our Burmese Karen’s apartment by surfing Craig’s list and advertising for donations, and just looking around for things we weren’t using at home. It’s a great way to recycle, as refugee families arrive often after having spent years in detention camps sleeping in tents or on bamboo mats, and are happy to have slightly used furniture and supplies. If your class or organization is looking for a way to help your community, this is a great project.

If your group has lots of energy,  you could choose to “adopt”  a family by taking them to enroll in school, to locate supermarkets, to explain how the banking system works, and other things we take for granted as natives. The level of involvement you wish to have with the family you sponsor is up to you. We decided we would like to meet them, but the constraints of the semester system made us decide not to participate in this additional piece. However, two of our students are considering tutoring the children next fall as volunteers.

The following are the steps we took to furnish an apartment for a refugee family, and it is based on a class size or student organization of around 20 people.  At certain steps, the need for an individual student(s) to take on a leadership role beyond the scope of their two team commitments will be noted.


  1. Begin by identifying the organization with which you would like to work. We worked with Catholic Charities, and they will be noted as CC for the purposes of example throughout this “How To.”
  2. Assign a student leader to be the “point-person” for communication with CC throughout the process. The professor or other adult leader can also play a role here.
  3. Communicate with CC about “adopting” a refugee family and about the objective of furnishing their apartment.  Find out what responsibilities lie with CC and which ones your group can (and wants to) take on—consider how the CC system works and your group’s own capabilities based on funds, time, and number of people.

Key details to find out from CC:

a. When is the family arriving?  On what date will the group be able to get inside the house/apartment?

b. Where are they coming from? What is the context of their current refugee situation?

c. How many people are in the family; how many parents and children; what are the sexes and ages of the children.

d. Where is the apartment located?

e. Any information you can find out about the apartment (i.e. room size or layout) before actually getting inside.

4. Divide the students equally into 2 sets of teams.  Each student should be in a group for a Room Team and for their Other Responsibility Team. The number of students per team works best if equal for Room Teams, but for Other Responsibility Teams, the number of students can be flexible based on interest or the commitment needed.  Try to make sure that at least one person on each Room Team has a car in case the team needs to go shopping for some items. The teams are flexible, but we did the following:

A. Room Teams


1 team EACH per bedroom


B. Other Responsibility Teams

Public Relations & Fundraising

Film and Publicity

Website Design (this was specific to our group, who needed to make this website.  Omit this group if your group doesn’t plan to document their project in this way!)

5. Assign one student to be the Project Supervisor.  This student will generally supervise the teams, keep track of items on the Room Teams’ list, keep track of and distribute funds, and be the liaison between the teacher and the students

6. Create lists of the items each room will need and assign them to each Room Team.  These lists should be based off of the standards that CC sets—communicate with them to get the list. For the item list that we used, click here. For the excel spreadsheet that we used, click on this link: Apartment Challenge.


7. Each Room Team is responsible for tracking down their items.  Students can find these items at home, at Salvation Armies, at free pick-up exchange centers, on Craigslist, at Wal-Mart, and at a number of other places.  Utilize your city’s resources and be creative.  Be as frugal as possible.

8. Designate a space in which to store all these items once you have them.  You may also want to designate a student who will be able to transport some of the larger items (such as beds) on move-in day (perhaps with a pick-up truck) or to pick them up from a Craigslist vendor.

9. Reach out to other relevant classes (if your project is on an academic campus) who may be interested in donating items.  Also reach out to student groups, friends, professors, etc.

10. One student should be in charge of finding a computer for the   family.  In our case, we worked with Trinfo Café, a community computing center affiliated with Trinity College, to get a second-hand computer and have it set up.


11. The PR/Fundraising Team is in charge of raising money to pay for the items we put in the apartment.  They should plan and event and advertise it well.  Our event involved several campus’ a-capella groups singing together during a heavy-traffic dinner hour at our dining hall; where students stopping through to listen and eat could donate money.  We advertised the event ahead of time via Facebook and flyers.

12. Note on funding: Your funding sources and amounts could vary from ours. Be creative! We ended up spending nearly all of the money we had or raised. Our funds came from two different places:

a. Money allocated to our course since it was a course with a Community Learning Initiative ($200, with the option to request $200 more)

b. The money we raised with the a-capella fundraiser, which came to $180.

The Project Supervisor should be sure to give money to students to buy items or to reimburse students throughout the process. Make sure students save receipts.

13. As the process gets closer, the student working with CC should nail down details (in addition to the ones listed above) such as which items CC can provide in the case that the students cannot find or afford them.  Also makes sure to obtain the key to the apartment and to communicate with the family’s CC-assigned Case Worker.


14. Film and Publicity Team

a. Locate filming equipment and learn how to use it.

b. Communicate with Publicity professionals from your college (in our case) who may want to cover the project.  For example, the student newspaper, school website, media relations, etc.

c. Contact your Dean of Students and ask him/her to send out an appeal on the global distribution email list of the campus, and any other support s/he might give. Click on this link for a sample letter: Letter_dean_announcement

d. If possible, begin to film preparations for the apartment furnishing, such as a class session (or other meeting), or a trip to Salvation Army, for example.

e. Takes photos at all stages of the operation.

f. Film the apartment furnishing process when the day(s) come.

g. Interview people involved in the process, such as: the professor or other adult leader, representatives from CC and the Case Worker, students involved, members of the refugee family (if possible upon their arrival.)

h. Consider making a video in the style of the t.v. show “Extreme Makeover”, showing the transformation of the space from bare to fully furnished. This does require quite a bit of time, editing, and skill.


a. Communicate amongst your group about the day(s) and time(s) during which you will furnish the apartment.  This must be between the times when you can receive the apartment key and before the family comes to the U.S.

b. You may need to work in shifts depending on students’ schedules.  Be sure to communicate about rides, who has a car, who is bringing the teams’ items over, etc.

c. The student in charge of the larger items (like beds) brings them to the apartment.

d. Move in and set up the items!

e. Be flexible and take inventory of what you may still need.  Go out and purchase it if possible, or ask CC to take care of it.


16. After the apartment is finalized, the Film and Publicity Team should edit their footage, interviews, and photos into a film showing the process.  This film can be placed on the website that the Website team creates.

17. (Optional) Meet the family! Work with the CC Case Worker to arrange a date, time, and location for meeting the family in an educationally productive yet welcoming and celebratory fashion.  For example, we celebrated and talked with our Burmese family, our Case Worker, and CC worker as a translator at the International House on the Trinity College Campus.

18. (Optional) Website Team: This team creates a website (what you’re reading!) that summarizes our efforts for the purpose of educating our community and/or (in our case) serving as a guide for others who may want to duplicate our project in some form.  Aspects of the website design project:

a. At least one team member must learn how to use website or blog software such as WordPress.  We set up a time to meet with a Trinfo Café employee and learn.

b. Students should write up items to include on the website including: a How-To, information about cultural rights, information about the family’s background, info about the fundraiser, etc.

c. The website should also include the photos and videos from the Film and Publicity Team.

d. Design the website and upload content. Find an accessible host or make your own site.

For other good advice, click on the link below.

Advice: In Our Own Words

Throughout this project, and especially in retrospect, it became abundantly clear what the most important aspects of success were: being realistic, being in constant communication, and remaining organized. Aside from our tasks within the house, the class was broken into various teams to get the word out, fundraise, and document our project. Here are some …

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