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Office Doors: Collin Cunningham
When Collin Cunningham came to Arizona she found herself in a completely new environment without her family or her friends.
Fortunately, as a volunteer mentor she found new friendships in a refugee family.
While Cunningham wasn’t facing persecution or learning how to adjust to an entirely new culture, she was experiencing some of the same struggles with starting over in a new place as the family she became close to.
“Each Saturday I would go out and I would visit that refugee family,” she said. “At that time I was new in this community I didn’t know very many people, I didn’t have very many friends or connections and so this family really became like my family and became my friends and they definitely rooted me to this community. They’re why I’m here still today so they’re the ones that really connect me to the work.”
Now, as the executive director of the Welcome to America Project, she is able to give back to other refugee families by helping to alleviate some of their struggles.
“At that time it was the recession and so they were having trouble finding employment and so it was a really challenging, scary time,” Cunningham said. “I was glad I was able to at least be a friend to them through that and provide a little bit of encouragement because really, refugee families have to go through a lot of that on their own and they have to overcome a lot of challenges. But we can provide what we can and provide a welcoming and supportive community.”
The Welcome to America Project provides refugees with what they’ll need to begin their new life — like furniture, household goods, clothing and most importantly, support and connections.
“We provide that community connection so bringing volunteers out to engage and provide those services to refugees creates a sense of welcome and greater belonging to the refugees, but it also increases awareness on the other side of things,” said Cunningham.
Volunteers are a big part of the organization’s efforts — with over 1,300 volunteers and a limited staff, much of Welcome to America Project’s services wouldn’t be possible without them.
“We exist because community members and volunteers give up their time and resources and care about the refugees in our community,” she said. “So, while sometimes it’s challenging, it’s also very rewarding to know an organization of our size has continued to exist for this long — it’s now our 16th year.”
While Cunningham’s primary role is to provide vision and leadership for the organization, she plays a large role in almost all programming.
“Being at a small organization, you do a little bit of everything, so you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and be willing to go out and do the work when it’s needed,” she said.
Cunningham has her master’s degree in public policy and a background in nonprofit management. She came to Welcome to America from the Girl Scouts’ Arizona Cactus Pine Council. While this isn’t the role she expected to be in, her passion for the cause has kept her engaged in her position.
“I thought I would probably be more in public policy or an analysis role but I like the strategy side and the tactical,” she said. “I’m kind of a nonprofit nerd. I like all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that it takes to plan and get your organization to the next level.”
While it doesn’t seem Cunningham has any plans to stop making a difference for Phoenix’s refugee community, she still has an interest in public policy and education.
“I think that there’s a lot of things I want to do,” she said. “You know, I still have a fair amount of time left in my career and there’s definitely still some different goals and things I want to achieve.”
For more: https://www.wtap.org