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UConn Foundation Announces Best Fundraising Year

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

2 min read

STORRS, CT. – The UConn Foundation recorded the highest fundraising total in its history for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020. Supporters contributed $89.5 million in new gifts and commitments to support UConn’s academic, research, and public service missions across all campuses and UConn Health.

“The UConn Foundation is proud to announce our most successful year yet. More than 18,000 alumni and friends invested in UConn’s future. In a year with significant economic challenges and the COVID-19 global public health crisis, this fundraising milestone is a testament to the dedication, vision, and immense generosity of UConn Nation,” said Scott M. Roberts, president and CEO of the UConn Foundation.

Fundraising increased 25 percent, rising from $71.4 million in fiscal 2019 to $89.5 million in fiscal 2020. In total, 18,401 alumni and friends made donations.

“UConn Nation made this fundraising achievement possible. Every gift contributes to UConn’s excellence and prominence. Philanthropic support underpins student success and helps drive innovation, research, and discoveries that have the potential to improve lives. We appreciate the incredible forethought and dedication of all our donors especially during these challenging times,” said John Malfettone ’77 (BUS), chair of the UConn Foundation Board of Directors.

A $1.4 million increase in dollars for scholarships and fellowships will boost the need- and merit-based support available for UConn students. Donations for scholarships and fellowships rose from $21.7 million in fiscal 2019 to $23.1 million in fiscal 2020. Since 2015, the UConn Foundation has raised $145.9 million for student support.

“We are deeply grateful for the passionate support of UConn’s alumni and friends. Philanthropy is more critical today than it has ever been. Scholarships and fellowships for our students provide them with vital support that keeps a UConn education within reach—especially for students from underrepresented populations, low-income households, and families experiencing financial challenges because of COVID-19 and the economic downturn,” said Thomas Katsouleas, president of UConn.

A significant rise in support for UConn Health will directly benefit patient care programs, life-saving research, and academic programs in medicine, dental medicine, and graduate studies. Donations increased from $6.7 million in fiscal 2019 to $15.9 million in fiscal 2020.

Support for the Division of Athletics totaled $26.4 million, rising 84 percent year over year. The increase in giving—which includes a $13.5 million pledged bequest for capital projects from an anonymous donor—will provide support for student-athletes, programs, and facilities.

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UConn couple gives to support frontline at UConn Health

Grace Merritt
Grace Merritt

< 1 min read

Kathy Banas-Marti ’81 (CLAS) and her husband, David Marti ’81 (ENG), of Windsor, Conn., felt compelled to donate to the COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to show their strong support for UConn Health.

“My husband and I donated to help those on the frontline who treat those affected by COVID-19,” said Banas-Marti, a reference librarian at the Homer Babbidge Library on the Storrs campus.

The couple’s twin daughters, Katherine and Kristen, recently completed rotations at UConn Health as part of their pharmacy doctoral program.

“They are very fond of their professors there and made good connections. I really wanted to show that our family is supporting them,” Banas-Marti said.

She and her husband, an engineering manager at a medical equipment company, graduated from UConn the same year, but didn’t start dating until after graduation. Their entire family is proud to be part of UConn Nation.

“I loved UConn so much, I never left,” joked Banas-Marti.

UConn Health staff
COVID-19
Make an Impact Today
The UConn Health COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund provides support for the purchase of medical equipment and supplies needed for the treatment of the COVID-19 virus.

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UConn Nation stands together

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

2 min read

During this unprecedented time, I want to pause and reflect on the power of this incredible community. UConn draws its strength from an immensely loyal family of alumni, friends, students, parents, faculty, and staff. Together we are UConn Nation—the bedrock of Connecticut’s flagship public university.

Resources for You and Your Family

I want to make sure you are aware of UConn’s main page for all information related to the COVID-19 response.

UConn is providing a steady stream of resources that can help you and your family—from public health advisories from UConn Health, to analysis about the impact of COVID-19 on businesses from the School of Business, to food safety and gardening tips from the UConn Extension program.

Physically Distant, Socially & Globally Connected

We may occasionally share helpful resources such as these with you going forward. For the latest information, we encourage everyone to follow UConn and UConn Alumni accounts on social media.

UConn’s new logo, unveiled last week, captures this historic moment. While we are practicing social distancing, we remain connected virtually.

Our Mission Continues

The UConn Foundation exists to support UConn and help alumni stay connected to their alma mater. Our mission and our work continue.

Importantly, the well-being and safety of our staff and the UConn community are our highest priorities. Our staff members are telecommuting in accordance with public health guidance. Although we are disappointed to cancel upcoming alumni events, we look forward to seeing you in the future. In the meantime, we are planning opportunities to get together through virtual events.

Our operations for accepting and processing gifts to support the University are fully functional.

Lifting Up UConn’s Students

We are heartened by the outpouring of compassion for UConn’s students, who have been impacted by the rapid closure of campuses for the rest of the semester, the transition to online classes, and the cancellation of commencement for the class of 2020. Your words of encouragement and philanthropy are immensely helpful.

Urgently Needed Support for UConn Health

The remarkable community response for UConn Health is inspiring to all of us. Restauranteurs, business owners, and individuals across the Farmington Valley have rallied to express the entire community’s gratitude to the doctors, nurses, and staff working on the front line in the fight against COVID-19.

We are collaborating with UConn Health to launch a new campaign starting this week to help drive in donations of urgently needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as well as charitable gifts to help purchase PPEs, medical equipment, and supplies. To learn more, please visit the UConn Health COVID-19 page.

We Stand United

We are in this together. Our thoughts are with UConn Nation as each of us does our part to flatten the curve and look out for our loved ones and neighbors.

If you have any questions, would like to connect with our alumni engagement team, or would like to make a gift, please reach out. You can email us at contactus@foundation.uconn.edu or use the staff directory to reach a specific person.

Take care.

 

Sincerely,

Scott Roberts

Scott M. Roberts 
President and CEO

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How to Build a Perfect UConn Tailgate

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

< 1 min read

Homecoming 2019 is right around the corner (Save the date for October 19!), and it’s bound to be the best one yet. We’ve got your tailgate covered—use this checklist to make sure you have all the essentials for a party that’ll get you hyped for the big game. 

Get Your Game Ticket 

That’s the whole reason we tailgate…right?  

Round Up Your Fellow Huskies 

You can’t have a party without your crew! Make sure the whole squad has cleared a spot in their calendars—they aren’t going to want to miss this. 

Make a Bomb Playlist 

Pack it with songs that’ll hype you up as you get ready to watch the Huskies dominate the field! 

Suit Up 

It’s time to represent your best white and blue! Go all out and show the Huskies that #UConnNation runs deep. 

Purchase Your Beverage of Choice 

Make sure you have everything necessary to crack open a cold oneCoolers, ice, cups, koozies…you don’t want to forget any of this! Because beer (or wine, cider, the list goes on…) and tailgating go together like burgers and fries—which brings us to our next order of business… 

Stock up on snacks 

You know a few bags of chips won’t fuel you up enough to cheer on your team. Pack up the grill and get cooking! Don’t forget the gas, spatulas, plates, napkins, condiments, hamburgers, hot dogs, buns…how about those crockpot dips? Tailgate BBQ is the best BBQ...so you can’t skimp on this! 

Does this sound like a lot of work? OK – we can simplify. 

You can skip all these steps and just head to Husky Brews before the gameEnjoy a buffet from Bear’s BBQ, live music, and tastings from a variety of local breweries—some of which are owned and operated by UConn alumni—right at Rentschler Field. We’ve even got your ticket to the game! All you have to do is show up. Easy, right?
 

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Saving Lives in Haiti

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

6 min read

Bette Gebrian ’77 (NUR), ’93 Ph.D. and Judy Lewis M.Phil., professor of community medicine and health care, have sustained a 30+-year partnership committed to improving basic health care in rural Haiti.

In 1982, when Bette Gebrian ’77 (NUR), ’93 Ph.D. made her first trip to Haiti, she already had earned her undergraduate degree in nursing at UConn and her master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. Still, she found she was unprepared for what she experienced there.

“I was devastated by how little I knew, how little I had to offer in terms of my knowledge of the language, the tropical diseases, and the lack of access to treatments, medicines, and basic care,” she says. “I knew that I needed to keep learning.”

Gebrian enrolled in a doctoral program at UConn to combine study in nursing, public health, and medical anthropology. She began studying the Kreyol language used in Haiti at Yale and in Boston. And she formulated a plan to return to Haiti to work alongside a public health nurse she had met during her time at Johns Hopkins.

Her plan was to complete her dissertation and stay a year at most in Jérémie, a city located in southwestern Haiti. She has been there ever since.

Gebrian married in Haiti, raised two daughters there, and has worked to improve health care services for more than 160,000 people. She has endured malaria and dengue fever, worked through local disasters like the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, a cholera outbreak, and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

“Trust,” she says. “It’s all about trust. The goal is to build upon each success, each disaster, each friendship to establish a sustainable set of behaviors that save the lives of thousands of people through the training and support of local men and women.”

Community Collaboration is Key

Gebrian’s work in Haiti began with her doctoral thesis, which examined the ways in which public health workers can successfully embed themselves in a community and improve medical outcomes by encouraging community participation.

To explore this theme, she teamed up with Judy Lewis, UConn professor of community medicine and health care, who was well-versed in working abroad and committed to ensuring that health education programs and interventions were fully compatible with the cultural norms in each unique setting.

Lewis, who has worked in more than 50 countries over the course of her career, notes that strong relationship-building has made all the difference. “Most people in these communities are astute at judging the motivation and skills of those who come to help,” she says. “Because Bette is a member of the larger community, and I have been coming here for a long time, we are both familiar with the environment and the people. So, the programs we helped to build came together in a much more natural way.”

Oin threne of the most successful interventions to come out of their partnership was an effort to combat childhood bacterial pneumonia, a major cause of death in children in rural Haiti. Mothers often mischaracterized or misunderstood the symptoms their children exhibited, and care often came too late or not at all.

Gebrian and Lewis led the Haitian Health Foundation’s (HHF) participation in a World Health Organization assessment to understand mothers’ conceptions of their children’s illness.

“Before we went plowing into the intervention, we had a great opportunity to use several anthropological methods to find out how they categorized things related to child health,” says Gebrian. “The women would say the children ‘have worms’ or that ‘their ribs are dancing’. They gave it a certain name, but often didn’t see the seriousness of it at the outset.”

What they observed informed an HHF intervention that used anthropology, sociology, nursing and public health to create a program that addressed the leading cause of child death in the area through education, diagnosis, and treatment of children under the age of five.

A process was set in motion that included a one-page pictorial home-care set of instructions for caring for children with pneumonia; training for 25 rural village health workers in accurately assessing a child for the illness; the development of monitoring tools for health workers; a set of seminars and community meetings to spread knowledge about recognizing and treating pneumonia; and procedures for tracking all episodes of pneumonia in children through a computerized health information system.

Within three years, they had documented more than 17,000 episodes of acute respiratory infection in children and reduced the mortality rate for pneumonia from 6.2 per 1,000 per year to 3.1 per 1,000 per year. The HHF went on to use this approach to increase vaccination rates, encourage exclusive breastfeeding, and address diarrheal disease and congenital syphilis.

This approach is integral to the Grand’Anse Health and Development Association, where Gebrian currently serves as executive director. The organization is currently using a similar process to address breast cancer in the region.

Partners in Progress

Gebrian and Lewis’s partnership also paved the way for intensive collaboration with more than 40 UConn health professions students and residents who have traveled to Haiti since 1987. Over the years, these students helped lay the groundwork for effective interventions by researching community beliefs, mapping out prevalent barriers to health care access, and engaging community members in discussions about regular health maintenance.

“Without the student work, our services wouldn’t be as good,” says Gebrian. “It’s rare that a service provider in a third-world country like Haiti utilizes the research of students to improve health. It’s not just that they came to Haiti to add to their resumes. They did serious, program-related operations research that helped to guide new programs or to evaluate and improve the existing ones.”

Their contributions include clinical documentation, developing educational plans, strengthening prevention programs, and addressing more complex diseases. Christina Yang ’20 (MED), for example, spent her time in Haiti interviewing women about the cultural barriers to breast cancer care in the region. She is currently working on two papers informed by this research: one will discuss the barriers and other findings that might help improve future education and breast cancer screening programs in Haiti, and the second will discuss the religious influence on health care in rural Haitian communities.

“Summer of 2017 in Haiti was filled with cultural shocks and new perspectives,” she says. “It opened my eyes to ​see the challenges of medical work globally and helped me learn the importance of cultural understanding and education in disease prevention. This experience enhanced my medical education as a student and solidified my career goal in global health work as a pediatrician.”

Fellow UConn medical student Gabriel Paul created a research plan with Professor Lewis’s help and visited Haiti in 2018 to explore men’s knowledge about breast cancer and their willingness to support their female partners. Although he found low levels of awareness about different aspects of the disease, his research indicated that Haitian men were willing to stay with their wives throughout treatment, even after a mastectomy.

“From the first time I met with Professor Lewis, it was hard not to notice how passionate she is for her work, and her love for the Haitian people. When I initially reached out to her about potentially doing research in Haiti, she insisted that I first learn more about the history of Haiti and its culture,” says Paul. “It was also incredible to see the level of involvement Dr. Bette has in the community of Jérémie, and all of the fascinating work she has done and continues to do there. It was a truly life changing experience, and I am counting the days until I get the chance to return!”

Like Paul, many of the students who have worked with Lewis and Gebrian continue to return to Haiti in a volunteer capacity

Inspiring Others Throughout UConn Nation

In addition to the students who have aided Gebrian and Lewis, a group of dedicated UConn alumni have found their way to Jérémie to provide support.

Dr. Dan Scoppetta ’77 M.D., a surgeon, spent years volunteering in Dame Marie, a town on the Haitian coast west of Jérémie. His particular interest was in hernia repair, but everything changed when he visited the hospital in Jérémie and met a woman with end-stage breast cancer. The hospital had no surgical program and there was little they could do for her.

“It broke my heart,” he says. “I talked to the nurses about her wound care. Bette made sure she got to the Sisters of Charity, who provide hospice care. Breast cancer care in Haiti is challenging because early detection is not common, and the treatment options are limited.”

The Grand’Anse Health and Development Association’s breast cancer initiative hopes to address that. The program aims to increase community knowledge disease, trains nurses and doctors to do clinical breast exams, and offers biopsies that are analyzed in the United States. Gebrian asked Dr. Scoppetta to help develop a surgical program for breast cancer so women would not have the burden of traveling to Port-au-Prince. In 2016, Dr. Scoppetta conducted the first mastectomy performed in Jérémie, and he has since organized teams of surgeons, anesthesiologists, and support staff to come to the hospital. The teams work with local physicians and nurses to improve their skills.

“There’s great potential here,” Scoppetta says. “The hospital in Jérémie has the capacity to deliver excellent care.”

Looking Toward the Future

Gebrian and Lewis’s commitment to the people of Haiti and to the expansion of health care access in resource-poor locations in clear. Looking ahead, there is more work required to address breast cancer, including oncology services and broader community outreach. In addition, they would like to address sickle cell disease, mental health, better emergency response, and other unmet needs within the community. This all requires consistent work with Haitian health professionals and community members.

“We believe that everybody deserves first world medicine,” says Lewis. “But you can’t wait for first-world medicine when there are problems that need to be addressed immediately. You need to be able to work within the resources that are available and be as creative as possible.”

“My time in Haiti has taught me that it’s a process and it takes time,” says Scoppetta. “When I’m feeling low about how things are there, I think if there’s one person that I’m helping, that’s one more person in Haiti that gets helped.”

“Most of us couldn’t survive a Haitian life in the rural areas,” says Gebrian. “But they just keep going. So, we are learning from them. We teach them what we can, but we learn much more from them.”

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UConn ‘Angels’ Bring Legal, Mental Health Aid to Asylum-Seekers

UConn Foundation
UConn Foundation

10 min read

A team of law students, social workers, interpreters, and researchers from UConn are providing assistance to asylum-seekers at immigration detention centers in Pennsylvania.

Fear of gangs and drug cartels. Of their home governments. Of their own family members.

Fear of persecution. Of the police. Of being killed.

Fear of deportation, or that someone they care about will be deported.

Fear that no matter where they went in their home country, they would find no safe haven.

Demonstrating a “credible fear” of returning home is the first hurdle that an individual must overcome when seeking asylum in the United States, and the formal demonstration of that credible fear comes in the form of an interview before a federal asylum officer that requires explicit discussion of the traumatic experiences that led them to flee. 

Preparing detainees for this all-important credible fear interview was only part of the work undertaken by the faculty, students and alumni who participated in this year’s Immigration Detention Service Project – a partnership between UConn’s School of Law Asylum and Human Rights Clinic and UConn’s School of Social Work that brings teams of attorneys and law students, interpreters, and experts on social work, mental health and trauma inside immigration detention centers for one week a year to assist detainees by preparing and arguing their claims for asylum before federal immigration authorities, and conducting psychological evaluations for use in those legal proceedings.

 

Since its founding in 2002, the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic has handled over 120 asylum cases to completion.

In many instances, spouses and children were also beneficiaries of the asylum grant, so the total number of refugees who have been able to secure legal status in the United States as a result of the Clinic’s work is well into the hundreds.

Twenty-two UConn-affiliated volunteer participants – including five legal teams, each comprised of two law students and a supervising attorney; a clinical social work team; a research social work team; and three undergraduate and alumni interpreters – embarked on this year’s trip, which took place from June 2 to June 7 and was conducted in partnership with ALDEA, a nonprofit legal and service organization that assists immigrant communities. The participants in this year’s trip were UConn School of Law students Emma Hale, Danielle Schmalz, Alexandra Santos, Zachary Bellis, Hannah Kang, Shelby Downes, Jenny Labbadia, Tennyson Benedict, Kyle Smith, and Kimberly Wilson; Patricia Jimenez ’21 (CLAS), who served as an interpreter; School of Law faculty members Jon Bauer and Valeria Gomez; Nina Rovinelli Heller, Dean of the School of Social Work; School of Social Work faculty members S. Megan Berthold, Kathryn Libal, and Scott Harding; School of Law alumni and practicing attorneys Meghann LaFountain, Jennifer O’Neill, and Ben Haldeman; Nicole Sanclemente, a Class of 2019 graduate who served as interpreter; and Chester Fernandez, a public defender in New Britain who served as an interpreter and attorney.

Unlike previous years where the trip has focused solely on assisting individual adult detainees being held at the York County Prison in York, Pennsylvania, this year UConn teams also worked with families being held in detention at the Berks County Family Residential Center in Leesport, Pennsylvania.

Law and Social Work: A Unique Model

While other colleges and universities have sponsored similar programs where faculty and law students assist detainees in immigration proceedings, UConn’s program is unique in that it also integrates social workers with mental health and trauma expertise in its work.

“The School of Social Work shares with the Law School dual missions of preparing students for professional practice and adding to our respective knowledge bases,” said Nina Rovinelli Heller, the dean of the School of Social Work and a clinical social worker who participated in the trip for the first time this year. “As our two schools have worked together on this detention project, we are increasingly aware of points of convergence in social justice practice. The combination of law and social work can yield important initiatives on behalf of many oppressed and disadvantaged groups.”

Jon Bauer is a clinical professor of law and director of the UConn School of Law’s Asylum and Human Rights Clinic. A lead co-organizer of the annual trip, Bauer said that the experience of having mental health professionals working side-by side with legal teams is tremendously valuable from both a client-service perspective but also for the well-being of the detainees themselves.

“There was a spillover therapeutic value for the clients, although it was not therapy,” he said. “And, even in cases where no psychological evaluation was conducted, it was a great resource for the lawyers and law students to be able to sound out issues with the social workers about how to approach some difficult issues. It was very valuable to get input on what to do, for example, with a client who seemed depressed and inclined to give up, even though they might have a strong claim for relief.”

In addition to conducting mental health evaluations and supporting the practice work of the legal teams, UConn’s social work contingent also conducted trainings prior to the trip to help prepare the volunteer participants for the personal and emotional toll that the experiences might have on them, and later made themselves available to some of the legal team members and volunteer interpreters who found themselves struggling with the weight of the stories they encountered while assisting clients in detention.

“The support in terms of helping people in the legal group to process their emotions and their stress – having the social work contingent was tremendously valuable,” said Bauer.

The social work clinicians also made themselves available as expert witnesses supporting the detained clients, offering to provide testimony by telephone if necessary at proceedings that were scheduled to continue well after the week-long trip had concluded.

“What an incredible opportunity to use your professional training and your specialized skill set for good in this realm, and for people who rarely have the opportunity to have a legal representative or legal team member or to meet with a mental health professional to have the opportunity to do so,” said S. Megan Berthold, an associate professor in UConn’s School of Social Work who was one of the original co-organizers of the inaugural Immigration Detention Service Project trip and has participated in the project every year. “For some, it’d be the very first time in their life that they’ve ever met with a lawyer, a law student, or a mental health professional.”

The Challenges of Working with Detained Children

One of just three family detention facilities in the country, and with the capacity to hold 96 detainees, about 25 refugees seeking asylum were at Berks while the UConn teams worked in the facility, which has been the subject of some controversy, with local advocacy groups and former detainees calling for its closure.

Unlike the highly publicized masses of refugees at the U.S.’s southern border, most of the Berks residents entered the country through the northern border, with asylum seekers from countries including Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, India, and Romania first traveling to Canada before crossing the border and seeking asylum protections in the United States.

“Berks has the veneer of being a kid-friendly place, but it has a strange, Twilight-Zone sort of vibe to it,” said Bauer. “It’s like it’s trying very hard to be kid-friendly, but it’s in essence a detention center.”

Bauer said that the teams encountered difficulties at Berks right away, when facility administrators suddenly changed rules about how many people could be physically in the room with a detainee at any time, which meant that, if an interpreter was needed to communicate with the family, a member of the legal team would have to sit out the meeting due to this unexpected limitation.

“It’s really hard to be both the lawyer and the interpreter,” said Berthold, “so the interpreters really were pivotal. It takes specialized skills and personal abilities to be able to interpret in these sorts of cases.”

Law student Jenny Labbadia and supervising attorney Valeria Gomez, a teaching fellow with the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic at the UConn School of Law, hold an extensive evidence package that their team developed to support an immigration detainee's asylum claim.
Law student Jenny Labbadia and supervising attorney Valeria Gomez, a teaching fellow with the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic at the UConn School of Law, hold an extensive evidence package that their team developed to support an immigration detainee’s asylum claim. (Contributed photo)

 

The staff at Berks also would not tell the legal teams when hearings were scheduled to occur, instead saying that information had to come from the asylum office in New Jersey, which led to the legal staff missing a few hearings and then attending others on the fly when meetings meant to prepare detainees for credible fear interviews suddenly turned into actual hearings before federal asylum officers.

In total, one of the UConn teams at Berks prepared seven families for their credible fear interviews while working at the facility, and then actually represented three of the families before an asylum officer at their credible fear interview proceedings.

A second UConn team worked intensively with a family that was already under a deportation order and prepared a motion to reopen their removal proceedings. That motion resulted in an initial stay of the deportation order; the motion was later granted, and the family was released from detention pending additional proceedings as they pursue their claim for asylum.

The detained parents being held at Berks at the time ranged in age from 20 to 40; the youngest child the UConn teams saw in detention was two years old, while the oldest was 16.

“During the credible fear interviews the legal team was sitting in a room with the family, and we were allowed to intervene occasionally and to make a closing argument,” said Bauer. “But usually the kids were there at the credible fear interviews, which was difficult because the kids have to listen to a parent talking about their persecution. The kids could be excused, but there’s kind of a presumption that, unless special steps were taken to excuse the kids, they were going to be there.”

As a mental health professional, Berthold has worked extensively with refugees, immigrants, survivors of torture and asylum seekers, but working with children in detention presented particular challenges, especially when children could be forced to either listen to their parents testify about their credible fears of returning to their home country or to actually testify themselves.

“It can be very damaging to the child, who looks to their parent for safety and security, and for protection – emotional, physical protection – to be confronted with some of this reality,” said Berthold. “Wow, my parent has these big limitations and there really is a danger. Our lives were in danger. Because that’s what you have to prove in a credible fear interview. You fear that your life would be in danger if you were to go back, and that can be just terrifying, especially when the future is so unknown.”

One teenager, Bauer said, was so terrified of disclosing any information about his own experiences that he asked his father not to talk about it either; he feared that the people who had threatened him in his home country would take revenge if the family was sent back. Children will often feel a sense of responsibility, Berthold said, if they are forced to testify and the outcome is then unfavorable for the family.

“A child may not understand all the proceedings and may feel very conflicted and uncertain,” Berthold said. “Are they going to cause a big problem? Are they going to be the reason their family gets sent back? Of course, it depends on the age and the developmental level of the child, and what they can understand, but it puts children in really bad situations.”

Six of the eight families the UConn teams worked with at Berks are now out of detention while the full proceedings of their pending asylum cases proceed.

“They’re not done yet, but they’re out of detention, which must be a huge relief, but they also are now able to have their cases actually examined on the merits and to maybe have that chance to get asylum and safety here,” said Berthold. “So, I find that to be, I think for the group, just enormously meaningful, knowing that our teams really contributed to that – the legal teams, the social work teams – but also, more importantly, knowing how meaningful that is for the people themselves, what a change in their life circumstances that provides them.”

“Seven Angels” at York

“We had one client in particular who was very grateful for the work that we were doing and very poetically expressive of his gratitude,” said Valeria Gomez, the William R. Davis Clinical Teaching Fellow in UConn’s Asylum and Human Rights Clinic who led one of the UConn legal teams that worked primarily at York County Prison this year.

“He had a hearing coming up within the next week, so we were very time constrained for him,” Gomez said of the poetic detainee. “He said, ‘I was praying for God to send me one person, just one person to sort of kind of guide me, tell me what I had to say, because I had no idea, and then he sent me seven angels.’”

The client was granted asylum the very next week.

Surrounded by fences topped with razor wire, York looks from the outside like a typical state or county prison and can hold more than 2,000 offenders. But it also houses federal immigration detainees in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Many of us found our clients to be very resilient and inspiring, even in the context of enormously challenging life circumstances,” said Heller. “They truly gave a ‘face’ to the human realities of seeking asylum.”

While teams at Berks focused mainly on the credible fear interview process, many of their clients at York were awaiting full asylum hearings while still in detention. Gomez and the legal teams worked closely with School of Social Work Associate Professors Kathryn Libal, director of UConn’s Human Rights Institute, and Scott Harding, who focused on conducting research and preparing reports on conditions in the detainees’ home countries that would support their asylum claims.

“What we were doing was trying to prepare the person who was detained for what that hearing might look like, while also trying to develop a declaration and trying to put together evidence packets,” said Gomez. “[The social work team] did a fantastic job of accumulating country conditions research that essentially gave credence to the basis of their stories.”

While many of the detainees they worked with had asked to meet with counselors or therapists, officials at York had not followed up with these requests. Berthold and Heller conducted mental health evaluations that could be used to support the detainees’ claims in their asylum proceedings but also provided an outlet for refugees to talk about their experiences in ways they had not previously been afforded.

“The two clients we worked with both told us both that they really appreciated the opportunity to tell their story, because it felt like they were relieving some of the pressure that they had to keep inside by just trying to keep the story and not having anyone to share it with,” Gomez said. “As legal professionals, and as law students, we were concerned because we’re providing legal services – we’re not trained to offer therapy or mental health counseling – but it was just a reflection of how much of need for that there is in this system.”

While the York teams didn’t experience the same administrative difficulties as the Berks teams – in fact, Gomez said, the correction officers at York were generally pleasant and interested in the work the volunteers were doing – the teams struggled with the limited amount of time they had to meet with clients to prepare the necessary documents to make their legal claims.

Gomez said that the law student volunteers who had worked through the Asylum and Human Rights Clinic – where they take a pro bono case and work deliberately with one client on their immigration claim throughout the semester – were able to contrast that experience with the rapid-fire, on-the-spot, and limited resource experience of working in a detention facility.

“The term that we kept throwing around was ‘crisis lawyering,’” said Gomez. “One student found it very gratifying and a capstone to the clinic experience, because what she got to learn through the slow deliberate process she got to apply in a very different environment, which is probably more akin to working in under-resourced, over-worked, nonprofit-organization-type of public interest work.”

When asked what their advice would be to anyone considering participating in a future Immigration Detention Service Project trip, Bauer, Berthold and Gomez all responded with a very emphatic, “Do it!”

“‘Do it’ sounds like sort of a joke answer, but it really isn’t,” said Gomez. “We’re unique in that we bring the social work contingent and we bring undergrad interpreters who we train. So, our system is pretty great…but, the collaboration that we have with social workers just elevates the quality of work that we can do.”

“There’s really keen dedication and expertise that’s been built through partnership with the law school’s Asylum and Human Rights Clinic,” Berthold said. “We’ve been building capacity as a project, but there’s just such an enormous need that we want to continue to build capacity.”

You can help UConn Law students provide legal counseling to refugees seeking asylum in our country. 

This article was originally published on UConn Today. 

 

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