PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A Portland non-profit is seeing a lot of new developments this year after moving in to a bigger place more central to the African immigrant community they serve.
African Youth and Community Organization (AYCO) recently moved to a new location on NE 74th and Glisan — the former site of the Trinity Broadcasting Network — thanks to a partnership with land owner Metro.
“This new center is the Dream Center for AYCO,” said Jamal Dar, AYCO’s Executive Director.
The move to a bigger building, from their former location on SE 122nd Ave, has helped bolster the non-profit’s community services, which includes education, health, family and social support.
AYCO serves families of all ages and backgrounds within the Pan-African diaspora. The vast majority of the non-profit’s constituents are East African immigrant and refugee communities in the Portland Metro Area, and of those families, 90% are Somali refugees and the majority are Muslim, according to AYCO’s Year End Report for 2020.
Many of the workers at AYCO who assist people come from a similar background as those they serve.
“We understand the language, we understand the culture, and we’ve also been in the school system so we know how to navigate in school,” explained Cultural Navigator and Social Service Coordinator Nuradin Abdirahman.
Abdirahman works in AYCO’s largest program, Uplift, which he said helps empower and uplift students to reach their full potential with academics and prepare them for the future. That includes middle school and high school students as well as those transitioning to college.
“A lot of the times when they come here, we’re helping them with their homework and we’re helping them just having that communication with their teachers and the principal and the counselor and the parents as well. So we are the bridge that pretty much connects everyone together,” Abdirahman said.
Since opening the roomier Dream Center, tutors can now help 10 in-person students per day, following social distance guidelines, in addition to virtual learning, which is a capacity that wasn’t possible before.
That’s a big help for a community that doesn’t always have equitable access to technology, Abdirahman said.
AYCO’s Bridge program provides health and disabilities services to community members, including services from licensed occupational therapists.
“We really provide a lot of wrap-around services. So occupational therapy itself is really direct an example of that,” said Bridge Program Coordinator and Occupational Therapist Amanda Kleist.
Occupational therapists support anything a person does to occupy their time, whether that be working a job, going to school, having meaningful interactions with peers or just completing day-to-day tasks like brushing one’s teeth or getting a good night’s sleep, Kleist said.
One teen with visual impairment had been receiving the therapy when his family was also going through issues related to their socio-economic status, like having the power turned off in their home.
“That’s something we kind of faced and provided support for the family with and support his mom and meeting with the school and understanding his services for his low vision,” Kleist said.
Kleist described the wrap-around or holistic approach at AYCO as one that addresses “intersectional needs” for families, such as barriers faced with being an immigrant or refugee family and also one that must navigate the school system with a health or disability issue.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, AYCO served an estimated 18,000 community members through support with things like helping people fill out unemployment applications, providing $410,000 to families for rent and utilities assistance, $75,000 in assistance through gift cards, grocery assistance of over 4,000 food boxes to families and virtual tutoring and homework support, according to the organization’s year end report. They also arranged for a clothing drive and provided $15,000 in personal protective equipment to essential workers within the community.
AYCO is funded by a variety of organizations, including Oregon Community Foundation, Oregon Health Authority, regional government Metro, Department of Human Services and the City of Portland, among others.
One recent funding opportunity came from a federally funded grant. Oregon Department of Justice dispersed $5 million in grant money to a dozen non-profit organizations in Oregon to support culturally specific, responsive victim services, according to a February 3 press release from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. Of that portion of federal Victims of Crime Act funds, AYCO received $343,000, Dar said.
“We are trying to kind of bridge the gap when it comes to mental health and substance abuse when it comes to the domestic violence, when it comes to the hate, islamophobia,” Dar said.
According to Metro, AYCO has a two year lease on the former TBN building for about half the available space in the building. The plan for the site is to build new affordable housing, between 120-150 new units that will serve families and households with very low incomes.
“Metro is pleased that AYCO has been able to put the space to good use before it is demolished and the new construction begins,” said Constantino Khalaf of Metro’s Planning and Development Communications.
Khalaf went on to say that Metro and the Portland Housing Bureau are working to find a developer for the site later this year.
“Both organizations are committed to a competitive developer selection process that results in the best possible project for the community.”
As for the future, Dar hopes to purchase the ground floor of the new building when it comes to fruition. The 19,250-square-foot plot is zoned for mixed commercial and residential use, according to Portland Maps.
Khalaf said it still too soon to say whether AYCO will find a permanent home at the site after the lease ends, given how early in development it is.
However Dar is hoping to find a permanent home in the building to assist community members that may reside at the soon-to-be residential facility and elsewhere, as that area of Northeast Portland has many hubs for East African immigrant community members, like culturally specific shops and mosques, Dar said.
The dream is to create a center for community members that includes multi-use athletic space, office spaces, a large conference room, commercial kitchen, head start classroom, reception and shared workspace, Dar said.
AYCO started in 2009 with an athletics-centered mentorship program in which Dar was able to get six East African immigrant middle and high school students who had dropped out to re-enroll in school.