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Community team transform motel for refugee families

Yelyzaveta Shchukina painted a wall in a common space of the Thrive Center. Photo courtesy of Thrive Center

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

The former Quality Inn on East 4th Ave. near downtown Spokane has become the front line of the Ukraine relief efforts in Spokane. 

Under the executive directorship of Mark Finney, the former executive director of World Relief, the complex, now named Thrive Center International, currently provides three to six months of temporary housing for refugees.

Approximately 90 Ukrainian refugee families most from the Mariupol region reside there now with the probability of more arriving through September and October.

Mark describes the project as the fulfillment of a dream.

"At World Relief I saw that we could provide good social services for folks but because we couldn't control where their housing was, a lot of times we were unable to serve them effectively because of transportation issues or childcare issues. Moms with young kids couldn't participate with programs. So no matter how good the programs were, refugees couldn't take advantage of them," he said.

Even while still at World Relief, staff was looking for a new facility where offices could be on site and the refugees with the highest needs would be able to live there and receive the services they needed as they began a new life in the United States.

When the opportunity for the former motel occurred along with the government funding to finance it, Mark leaped at the chance and was quickly joined by Jim CastroLang, who is the operations administrator.

Just as quickly three other staff were hired to complete the team that would make it all work.

Anna Bondarenko became the assistant manager, and Lidia Pauline is the general manager.

Both women came to the United States as young children, Anna from Kyrgzstan and Pauline from Ukraine. Both are fluent in Russian, English and their nations' languages.

The fifth member of the team is Marshall McLean as communications coordinator. In September, a sixth member of the team will come on board as a volunteer coordinator.

As the team agrees, Thrive isn't just about giving refugees a place to survive until they can get work authorization and permanent housing and move on to stable live. It is a place for them to thrive. 

Anna and Lidia handle the reception desk and assist the refugees in whatever ways they need. They never know what they might be asked to do.

Recently they received a call from a young Ukrainian man on his way to Spokane as a refugee.  He asked for a large bouquet of flowers and some balloons for his arrival, because as soon as he arrived, he had a ring to propose to his girlfriend who was already living there with her parents. 

He had been on the verge of proposing when the war broke out. He fled with the family to western Ukraine and then Europe but got separated from them on the journey through Europe. Before he could catch up with them, they already had been put on a flight to the U.S.

He told Anna and Lidia he was not going to miss this opportunity again.

The Thrive Center Facebook page posted the video of his arrival and proposal with many from the center there to celebrate with him when she said yes.

Another request came from a parent whose child had pierced his foot in an accident. Anna directed them to one of the two nearby urgent care facilities.

Three women have had new babies born since coming to Spokane. 

Anna, in particular, has helped them find the items they need in their new home.

Sometimes she helps others locate the internet resources they need to find government forms for work authorization permits or insurance for their cars or a place to have a car repaired.

In the middle of August, Lidia was arranging repairs for the swimming pool in the facility. It hadn't been used for over a year and as the temperatures soared to triple digits, they had their first pool party.

"A pool isn't really necessary here," explained Mark, "but we want Thrive Center to be full of joy and a place where people thrive and not just survive."

The staff also learned that one of the women, Yelyzaveta Shchukina, was a mural painter and they invited her to decorate a wall in one of the common spaces.

She painted a Ukrainian scene with bright blue skies, green fields and perky yellow sunflowers—the colors of the Ukrainian flag.  The scene reminds her of the Ukraine but also could be in the Spokane region as well.

Once remodeling is completed by the building's owners, the refugee housing center will have 153 rooms, two event spaces, a full commercial kitchen, and two dining areas providing shelter for refugee and immigrant families and on-site facilities for education and programming.

Currently, among the approximately 90 families living there, the smaller families each have their own hotel rooms on the side of the building that has the single rooms and the larger ones on the side which has suites, essentially double rooms that can be opened up into a single unit. 

Each family is responsible for their own meals, and the rooms have a two-burner hot plate, a microwave and a small refrigerator to make that possible. The rooms are small but there are multipurpose spaces where children can play and parents can relax outside of the small rooms.

"When the people from the Ukraine come and see this place, they tell us they feel welcome. This is more than they expected.  That's special to us. We want this to be a place that's full of life," said Mark, emphasizing the vision.

In time, Thrive Center will most likely be home to refugees from many different cultures and the headquarters for Thrive International.

With its event space, it is even now beginning to be used as a place for community events and partnerships with organizations doing similar work in the Inland Northwest.

Already during the summer, an English language instructor from Roosevelt Elementary School had a seven-week reading program for kids in the space, and Jackson Lino runs a youth program and the Neema Youth Choir there.

Mark and Jim both acknowledged that the response from the community has been awesome and much appreciated.

"Our community partnerships are important. We have received government money and that's great, but our vision is that we wouldn't just be a government contractor," said Jim. 

"We want to be an expression of the community. We are a very young project, and our hope is that we can have faith communities partner with us not just financially but with volunteers.

"A big project like this only works with a good team and community support," said Mark.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, September 2022