Each year, Lansing welcomes over 600 refugees to the city and helps provide them with basic services, food, clothing and shelter for their first 90 days. It’s after this introductory period the Refugee Development Center (RDC) steps in, says the center’s Executive Director, Erika Brown-Binion.
The Michigan-native has led the group for three years, first discovering her passion for the refugee and migrant communities while teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) to Cambodian and Hmong students in California. After 10 years on the West Coast, Brown-Binion moved back to Michigan with her family and discovered the RDC. She, like most of her staff, began working at the center as a volunteer and fell in love with the work.
“The passion came first and this is what makes our staff so special and cohesive,” said Brown-Binion. “They all believe in the mission and live it every day.”
The RDC was founded in 2002 by Vincent Delgado and Pastor David Thiele after they noticed a gaping hole in the services available to newcomers. The center was located in Christ Lutheran Church until last October when it moved to a new location on Maple Street. Brown-Binion says the move gives the group room to grow and offer services closer to where refugee families are located. In addition to the new center, the RDC hosts courses through the Lansing Public School District and the Capital Area District Libraries’ downtown location.
As the organization celebrates its 15th birthday this month, Brown-Binion reveals her hopes for the future of the RDC.
“Something we’ve been thinking about a lot is how do we sustain and grow for the next 15 years? I think we’d like to see our programs grow and flourish and see some of the newcomer residents become leaders in our programs. We have many people who have been here for years now and they want to give back and be a part of programming.”
She’d also like to see the center reopen its drop-in center, where people were able to come and receive help with immediate needs.
“That part of the center was closed several years ago and those who remember it ask all the time how we can open it again. It was one of those incredibly special programs and we hope to fill that void and reinstate it in the future.”
Brown-Binion credits the center’s 300-plus volunteers with helping to make it a vital community resource to families who have relocated to the Lansing area.
“The mentoring relationship and bonds formed are so crucial to what we do and are beneficial to everyone. We’ve had volunteers that have changed the course of their careers after their experience here and the impact it had on them. And this partnership allows our newcomers to meet their neighbors and really feel like a part of the community.”
The biggest challenge facing the center, according to Brown-Binion, is the emerging negative sentiments aimed at refugee communities.
“They bring new customs, traditions, food and economic growth to Lansing; adding an incredible richness that not every city has. I just hope more people have the opportunity to build relationships with their refugee neighbors and recognize the value they bring to this community because it’s pretty special.”