There are many different ways for people to communicate.
For Athraa Ayal, her communication turned into cooking, then a beautiful friendship.
“When I first came to America, we had a neighbor who was Mexican, but she didn’t speak any English,” said Athraa. “We became so close. We shared food, talked in Spanish or Arabic, and we’d understand each other!” she said.
Eventually, Athraa and her neighbor had an unspoken and a spoken understanding – they were friends.
“We’d go to each other’s cultural parties, and when we want to help for someone to translate, the whole point is that she only spoke Spanish! I only spoke Arabic, but we understood each other,” said Athraa, smiling.
Athraa said, “Every time I eat a certain soup, I remember her. We invited her over and had the soup. She asked how we made it; we explained in Arabic, and she made it! It tasted the same. Every time, we remember those days and laugh!”
Nebraska Children and Families Foundation has also cultivated an understanding of our communities and their ability to accomplish great things. We know that our state can thrive, so we work with different people, entities, and organizations to ensure that our communication leads to positive change.
Moreover, when our initiatives communicate and create an understanding, they forge remarkable outcomes for young people.
When Beyond School Bells, our afterschool network, and Connected Youth Initiative, which works with youth and young adults who experienced foster care, decided to collaborate, they achieved a remarkable goal. With an influx of CARES Act dollars, the teams agreed to create paid internship opportunities for young people like Athraa that have experienced foster care so they can become staff supporting youth in Lincoln and Omaha Public Schools’ afterschool and summer programs and gain important workplace skills.
To boot, we love having partners like Central Plains Center for Services (CPCS). Their partnered CYI coaches employ LEAP (Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential) strategies for assisting young people who experienced foster care with their educational and professional goals.
Today, we were lucky enough to speak with Athraa’s CPCS Higher Education Liaison, Jessi Hedlund, who described some of Athraa’s accomplishments, too.
As she continues with her internship, Athraa embraces and describes the challenges and joys with her current students.
Part of her internship involves working with five or six children at a time in their afterschool programs. She said she helps them with homework, then ensures they are engaged.
Meanwhile, in addition to lighting up a room, Athraa has been incredibly helpful in working as a teacher’s assistant and helping the students with their homework.
“When the kids have math, they think that I’m a genius,” she said, laughing.
“They struggle a lot, and they think I know everything. They love doing homework with me – I struggle a lot, too, but it’s fun. We still find a way, though, and we laugh. I like to work with homework!”
Athraa said that she enjoys the students’ imaginations as well.
“I play with them; the last time, I had a group of girls. They didn’t want to play the games we had already. They wanted to play their own game. So, they played their own game, a McDonald’s drive-through,” she said laughing.
Athraa continues to describe some of the incredible bonds forged with children.
“There was a little boy; he was the most beautiful kid at school. He would always come running and hug me. He’d play with me, not the other kids. When his mom came to pick him up, he said, ‘Athraa’s my friend now. Can we take her home?’ One time, he was crying. He told his mom, ‘If you take me home, then you take her too.’”
Athraa said, “I was so sad when he left. He was so cute and so special to me.”
Beyond all else, Athraa said she loves being busy.
“Before, I always had free time; I used to feel bored, as though I had a lot of time without anything in it. Now, I don’t even think, ‘I’m bored.’ I don’t have time to think! I have to do a lot of things for school. I barely get free time, I kind of like it!’”
Her CYI partnered internship with LEAP was her first paid work experience.
During her internship, Athraa encountered some exciting news. Because she was such a valued part of their afterschool program, the school wanted to hire her!
Athraa said she is diagnosed with a disability that prohibits her from standing or walking for long periods.
Jessi and Athraa described how her disability initially made her job search difficult.
Still, according to Jessi, despite Athraa’s initial struggles, her lively presence, intelligence, and performance were enough evidence for the school to welcome her as an employee!
“The school saw what a value she is, so they changed her position to accommodate what she needs,” said Jessi.
Athraa now works a parent-facing desk position, where she can illuminate the room and engage others, something that she does very well.
As part of her permanent position with LPS, Athraa will work the front desk and, due to her homework helpfulness, will undertake an additional responsibility.
“I’ll be doing front desk work; [the school] asked if I wanted to do an afterschool club once a week. I have to think of an idea for a club, if I want to do it. [The school] said that they will raise my pay.”
Best of all, Jessi and her coach can help her begin to plan the club!
Athraa’s currently contemplating a possible themed club – one that draws back to the root of her passion and communication – food and culture!
“Right now, I don’t have any idea. When I went to school, there was a Middle Eastern Club. I thought about doing that with the kids. When we did it, we did food, language.”
Once again, Athraa said she enjoyed showcasing her talents for cooking and bonding.
“I liked to make a lot of food. We had culture clubs and an event at the end when we met together and had a festival, and we cooked our culture food, dressed like our culture, shared dances, and language, and henna tattoos.”
And here, her story comes full circle. Just as when she initially emigrated to Arizona in 2009, met her neighbor, and exchanged food and languages, yet again, this young woman creates a bridge of communication between cultures.
Jessi said that she loves Athraa’s idea, and as a coach, she immediately began to brainstorm ideas.
“You could even do a cultural club with kids from all over the world! You could even feature different clubs every week,” said Jessi.
“I am going to college and will hopefully get my degree as an office professional.”
Today is a special day for Athraa; tomorrow, the school will officially hire her!
“The school has been great,” said Jessi. “Athraa gets to work with two other CYI young leaders who successfully completed the pilot cohort of the Learn & Earn internship in Summer 2021. [The other interns] have been helpful,” she said.
Jessi said that Athraa’s talents for working with children come from the fact that, as an English Language Learner (ELL) speaker, she can communicate without speaking.
In addition to helping her hammer out her vision for an afterschool club, Athraa said that her CYI coach helped her immensely with the daunting work of figuring out how to finance her education.
“My coach helps me with school. I used to have trouble with scholarships and financial aid. My coach has helped me with that,” she said.
“If I want to help to get a job interview or am struggling with an application, my coach can help me.”
Jessi said that Athraa’s CYI coach advocates for her talents.
“She applied to another position and didn’t get the position, but Athraa’s coach advocated for her; she said, ‘This girl is amazing. She’s incredible; she’s so smart.’”
Jessi said that Athraa’s coach, Alisa, even had Felipe Longoria, the Director of CPCS, through a program at the community college, call Jessi to contact the school and recommend Athraa for the internship that led to her current job.
“Athraa was hesitant at first,” said Jessi, due to feeling discouraged about her previous bad news. “But Alisa encouraged her.”
Athraa said, [I said to myself], ‘I will never get in, but let me just do it.’ When I got in, I was so surprised! I just said, ‘Wow!'”
Jessi said she was glad that Athraa didn’t give up. “I am glad Alisa pushed Athraa to apply for this internship,” she said.
Still, Athraa is mapping out her many plans with Jessi and her coach, including navigating her college financial aid application as she currently attends Southeast Community College.
“I have a problem with financial aid,” said Athraa. “I haven’t gotten it in three years. At one time, I had a lot of health problems, so I couldn’t get to school. They took my financial aid. I had to appeal to get it back, and I didn’t. So, the next point is to work with Alisa to take it back.”
Jessi said that now that Athraa has money, she can work with her coach and learn how to budget!
Athraa has worked with CYI coaches since 2019, as she used to be in foster care.
Although she initially applied for coaching, she says she then forgot about it. While taking a gap year after high school, when she re-entered college, she met Felipe through the community college program.
Athraa said she loves not only bonding with her coach, Felipe, and other CPCS staff, along with their joking and friendship!
“We tease each a lot, me and Felipe; his personality is great – I forget that we work together!”
As Athraa steps into her new role at Lincoln Public Schools, she plans the next phase of her education.
“The goals that I have are to finish college and take a degree,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be in business and finances, but for me to get a four-year school is expensive, as I’d have to do another two for management. I’d like to take a degree, take money from it, and go back,” she said. “And that’s how I am going to end up: in business and finance. I also love kids a lot.”
As much as she loves culture, children, and cooking, Athraa said she wants to eventually work for a company that does social media and marketing.
“Social media, I think, is the future; it’ll keep going, so I will always have a job.”
Nebraska Children, our initiatives, and partners love hearing stories like these.
Thanks to our young people’s resilience and CARES Act dollars put to good use, Athraa, and countless other young leaders can continue to communicate, cook, and friend their way into their dreams.