Get that Light In

Karol Nina knows what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.  And she’s taken that experience to make a difference in the lives of girls who know the feeling.

While the wind blew and the snow swirled and everyone else was shuttered inside their homes and the streets were devoid of traffic, Karol Nina and her sister and her mother stood hip-deep in a drift, holding hands, throwing up fistfuls of powder into the air, basking in the winter chill.

“It was the weirdest feeling,” she says. “We couldn’t feel our legs and no one else was out there that day. It was a blizzard. But we were having a party.”

And who could blame them? It was their first exposure to snow, having immigrated to Lynn, Massachusetts from Puerto Rico earlier in the year. Karol was 12 at the time and little did she know, a decade later, this story would become something more than a silly anecdote; it would be a bridge across cultures.

Karol Nina recently wrapped up a one-year stint working for Girls Inc. as an Americorps member, part of United Way’s broad, 12-person term charged with serving in Lynn agencies with the mission of helping the immigrant population better their education and grasp on the English language.

Throughout the year, she served as a case manager, working with 13 middle and high school girls in the afterschool program. She held regular meetings, talked about issues they were grappling with, connected with the parents, offered emotional support, helped with the girls’ academics and progressed towards achieving set goals. In addition, she tutored, provided homework support and helped prepped new graduates for a college experience. It was a lot, but Karol didn’t blink; after all she was returning the favor.

“I’m from Lynn and came to Girls Inc. when I was in high school,” she says. “Their college mentoring program helped me with the application process and really got me through college. I owe a lot of what I became today to Girls Inc.”

Her experience as a new immigrant with a tenuous grasp on the language paid off in a big way this year. She built strong relationships with her girls, and encouraged them to shed their awkwardness about a language barrier. They would meet in groups and just talk to each other, talk about their countries of origin, their struggles, their aspirations, anything really. Even snow. Like the girl from Africa who had never seen it before or the girl from the Dominican Republic who dashed out to touch it and eat it. These small, shared experiences went a long way to building trust.

“If I was a candle, these girls would light me up,” she says. “I love seeing them. I’ve had bad days and sometimes I don’t feel like coming in. But as soon as I hear their voices my mood changes.”

Today, Karol is still with Girls Inc., hired to be the Development and Communications Manager. Her new responsibilities keep her busy in the office, crafting press releases and supporting the agency’s fundraising efforts. And though she’s not around the girls as much, she can still hear their voices. And when the day is long and she needs a recharge, she takes a quick stroll downstairs.

“That’s all I need to do,” she says. “I go back for a quick visit with the girls and get that light in me and go back to work.”

Want to read more about what Karol and her fellow AmeriCorps team members accomplished in Lynn! Click here! And read about the newest group’s efforts on their Tumblr blog.