Like many kindergartners, Antoine has big dreams for his future.

“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” he said. “I also want to be a pilot.”

Antoine, Kindergarten 2022

Antoine, 5, took the first steps towards achieving his dreams when he started kindergarten this month.

“He was so excited to start school,” said his mother, Ange.

Ange, a Congolese refugee who has spent the past 12 years living in Burundi after fleeing violence in her native country, resettled in Knoxville in February with Antoine and her younger son, Toussaint. Bridge Refugee Services has been helping the single mom with housing, food, clothing, and other services since their arrival.

“Bridge helped with things in the house,” Ange said. “They helped me start English classes and helped me get a job.”

Bridge also helped her register Antoine for kindergarten, where he looks forward to learning how to write this year.

“I started working with them at the end of last year to take them to the kindergarten registration event at the Welcome Center,” said Laura Katie Shannon, a school liaison in Bridge’s Knoxville office. “He seemed so excited. He was really disappointed when we enrolled him in the Spring and he didn’t get to go until the fall.”

To help prepare him for success in the classroom, however, Shannon arranged for him to participate in a Summer camp offered by Muse Knoxville in June. “He went to the Awesome Animals camp and a little bit of Dinosaurs Rock,” she said.

The experience jump-started Antoine’s socialization with children his own age who speak English.

“Playing with kids,” he said when asked what his favorite part of the camps were.

Ange said Antoine loved the opportunity and it helped prepare him for school. “He made new friends and was so happy to be there,” she said.

Shannon also helped the family secure Wi-Fi at their apartment and enrolled Antoine in Bridge’s Refugee School Impact program, which introduces newly arrived parents and their school-age children to the American school system and serves as a resource for them in the early stages of their transition to life in a new community.

“We serve clients up to five years, but most of the time, parents and kids adjust pretty quickly, so I maybe, on average, have kids two to three years,” she said. “I feel like Antoine is already adjusting like crazy. He wrote his numbers up to 100 for me yesterday.”

Two weeks prior, she said, he had mastered them up to 40.

“I love dancing,” Antoine said.

He also loves drawing and often gives Shannon pictures he created from the backpack of school supplies Bridge brought to him before the first day of school.

“We get a lot of school donations, fortunately, so, in the early days, it’s nice to give students a full backpack, a water bottle, a lunch box and other things they’ll need,” Shannon said. “Some of our volunteers donated a Swahili and English storybook, so I put that in his backpack too.”

A Bridge interpreter who speaks Swahili accompanied Antoine and Ange to the school’s open house in early August, and Shannon will also enroll Antoine in after-school programs to enrich his learning experience.

Shannon said Bridge also helps clients get screened for vision impairments and arranges for glasses for those needing a pair.

“Resource coordination is a big thing we do,” she said. “Another service we provide is access to mental health resources and connecting them to school counselors because the transition is tough for everybody, especially the kiddos.”

Shannon said Bridge strives to empower parents and advocate on their behalf for language access for their children in school. Most students, including Antoine, take English Language Learning classes as part of their school day, while their parents, like Ange, attend classes to learn to read and write in English. Both students and their parents have the option to receive English tutoring from Bridge volunteers, as well.

“Antoine was so excited to show Ange his paper of writing his numbers to 100 and showing how he progressed,” she said. “When I walked in yesterday, they were both practicing their letters in similar workbooks. They’ll do homework together and it’s a good bonding experience.”

Ange said she works at a local hotel to ensure her boys can become doctors, pilots, dancers, artists, or whatever else they one day want to be.

“I hope to work and develop myself and my family,” she said.