With sweeping views of the mountains and lots of space, the top-floor meeting room at the new Missoula Public Library makes an ideal venue for the weekly meeting of Soft Landing Missoula’s summer book club.
On Thursday, a group of 16 refugee kids took turns reading pages of “Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen.
Standing in the front of the room, AmeriCorps instructor Natalia Boise stopped to go over words the kids didn’t recognize, like “encircle” and “tussle.”
When she asked how many kids wanted to keep reading at the end of an hour, a dozen hands shot straight up into the air.
Many of the kids speak Swahili as their native language and others speak Arabic, but their English is improving greatly week to week, Boise said.
Soft Landing Missoula is a nonprofit set up to help refugee families that have been resettled here by the International Rescue Committee.
The book club is in its second year and was created as a way to engage refugee youth to not only reduce “learning loss” over the summer, but also to continue to create social experiences, according to executive director Mary Poole. The kids build friendships, confidence and the English skills they need to succeed during the school year.
"Consistent experiences like the book club, where kids not only hone their reading skills but also have time and space to just be kids having fun together, go an incredibly long way in building confidence for success when they walk back through the classroom doors in the fall,” Poole said.
Kids in the book club meet once a week after getting free pizza donated by Bridge Pizza. After they're done reading, they get to play at the library’s new SpectrUM Discovery Area.
“It’s kind of a reward for them after reading,” explained Boise, who has help from other AmeriCorps members.
Students in the book club also get the chance to participate in other Soft Landing recreational outings during the summer, including a whitewater rafting trip on the Alberton Gorge and an overnight camping excursion to Yellowstone National Park.
“We saw a lot of bison in Yellowstone,” Boise said. “We had a great time.”
The kids are middle-school and elementary-school age and Poole said the club is crucial for them to practice reading aloud. They also benefit from discussions, comprehension checks and quality time spent with mentors and friends.
The new library has been crucial for the program, she said, because it has enough space to accommodate such a large group in an enclosed meeting room.
Paul Mwingwa has three children in the program. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he said his girls are now better English speakers than he is.
“They have tried to teach me, yeah,” he said, grinning. “They are doing well in English.”
He doesn’t want them to forget their native language, so he and his wife will answer the girls in Swahili at home if they ask questions in English, he said.
“You see, that is very important,” he said.
He and his family have been in the U.S. for almost three years, but he remembers how difficult it was to adjust to a new tongue in a strange land.
“Since we came here, we are struggling with the language,” he said. “But Soft Landing has been very helpful for them. They like it very much.”