Ohio Teen Welcomes Immigrants and Refugees to the Heartland

Daily Point of Light # 7802 May 1, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Anna Kunkel. Read her story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Anna Kunkel is a high school junior from a family of four – or five, if you count her well-loved Siberian Husky, Odin (which she does). Most of her interests and extracurriculars revolve around migration, a topic she hopes to study and build a career on. Understanding a bit more of the immigration process through her mom, originally from England, Anna has worked tirelessly to create a welcoming environment with resources and opportunities for anyone who has left their home country by choice or necessity.

With Heartfelt Tidbits, an organization that helps immigrants build skills and community while transitioning into life in their new home, Anna has tutored elementary school kids and taught them English. Becoming more acquainted with the immigrant and refugee experience led her to create Student Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees . Her all-student team works in partnership with local nonprofits to support and enhance the services they provide as well as creating programs of their own. Anna even used her passion for documentary filmmaking to tell the story of an Afghan woman’s journey to Cincinnati. She spends at least 30 hours a month working within the immigration support community.

Anna, founder of Student Alliance for Immigrants, creates educational programs and support networks for new arrivals while amplifying their stories in the community.

What inspires you to volunteer with immigration-related initiatives?

My mom immigrated when she was 10 and her father got a job transfer. She was on a green card before eventually getting her citizenship at 39, while was pregnant with me.

I also met a refugee in sixth grade when I was doing a project on the Serbia-Kosovo conflict of the late 1990s. As part of that project, we reached out to a journalist at The Economist who referred us to Kosovan ambassador to the United States, Vlora Çitaku.

Vlora was also refugee and had signed Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence in 2008. She had a profound impact on me. Hearing firsthand accounts of what people go through and forming a connection with them, makes it personal. That inspired me to look for work in my own community, and I found Heartfelt Tidbits came to my school for a community service presentation my sophomore year.

Tell us about your volunteer role with Heartfelt Tidbits and Student Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees.

I started with Heartfelt Tidbit’s Virtual Buddies program zooming with kids at a school with a majority second-generation immigrant student population. Second semester, I worked in-person at the Academy of World Languages (AWL) four days a week after school playing with kids, helping and reading. Reading is a big gap you need to fill with kids who aren’t proficient in English.

Then, I started teaching ESL with Heartfelt Tidbits. I taught myself Spanish, because most of the demographic here who needs English support are Spanish-speaking. It was my first time working with adults, so it was intimidating.

Over the summer, I interned at the Immigrant and Refugee Law Center. I got to learn a lot more about the legal process. I concurrently took an online course on immigration law, so I learned more about the legal process coming into the United States. And I got to attend a citizenship ceremony.

I started SAIR, because I saw refugee support groups struggling to get kids excited about volunteering. There are 110,000 immigrants and 25,000 refugees in Cincinnati. Not all of those people need assistance, but a lot of them do. We focus on creating educational opportunities, welcoming and supporting people as they build new lives here and amplifying their stories. We launched something I call the Cincy Stories Project, which allows you to share immigration stories. Our first-place winner did a wonderful job writing about her parents immigrating from Mexico and how they long for their native country but love their home in Cincinnati.

Our Welcome Project encourages kids to write letters to people coming in, and we got a $600 micro grant from Karma for Cara to create welcome baskets.

What are your long-term plans or goals for SAIR?

We’ve got our inaugural walkathon coming up. We’re partnering with Heartfelt Tidbits to raise money for two scholarships for first-generation, immigrant students. Our fundraising goal is $40,000. Long-term, we’re hoping to keep this scholarship program going.

I plan to take it with me to college, as well. My goal is to make is to start with SAIR Cincy and then build SAIR Ohio and SAIR US. Right now, we’re in six schools in Cincinnati. Dolly Parton runs a literacy program called the Imagination Library which sends free books to young kids. We were going into churches with big immigrant populations and signing kids up for that with SAIR. Through that, we attracted volunteers and were able to start new chapters.

(Left to right) Heartfelt Tidbits executive director Sheryl Rajbhandari and Anna talk video games with a boy from one of the families the organization works with.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

There have been many rewarding things with SAIR: seeing it expand, seeing student volunteer interest grow and seeing students feel comfortable sharing their immigrant stories. The best thing is the group of kids we work with. They’re like family.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

It’s made me feel so much closer to the community of Cincinnati. Before volunteering, I didn’t realize how little I knew about it and its residents. I’ve really gotten a sense of what it means to work across cultures. And I’ve always been a pretty empathetic person, but I’ve become even more so.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

Immigrants and refugees are everywhere. Migration is not a class or race issue. It’s a human issue. We’ve got people migrating from all over the world who need help. People don’t want to leave their countries and their homes. For the most part, people are coming because they need to. It’s really important to step beyond whatever fears and ideas you have, because we have so much to learn from people who have undergone so much. Our country is built upon immigrant values and immigrant stories, and it’s important that we’re aware of those and how people coming in make our communities better.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Anna? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Kristin Park