Author: Central New York Community Foundation

CNY Vitals is an initiative of the Central New York Community Foundation. The Central New York Community Foundation is a tax-exempt public charity. Its mission is to foster a thriving Central New York community, inspire greater giving, celebrate legacy and steward charitable resources for today and tomorrow.

Addressing the Mental Health Needs of Refugees

Between 2007 and 2016, Onondaga County became home to more than 9,500 refugees, consisting mostly of Burmese, Bhutanese and Somalian settlers[1]. That figure includes approximately 1,000 Iraqi and Afghan refugees who were affiliated with the United States military, as well as 250 refugees from the Syrian conflict[2]. A large portion of these refugees turned to local nonprofits for support to establish economic and social-self-sufficiency, long after the initial resettlement period.

English-as-a-New-Language (ENL) lessons and housing assistance are primary support services refugees have access to. While these services are critical, (70 different languages are spoken in the Syracuse City District[3]) and housing remains a difficult process, mental health services are far less common. The lack of adequate, culturally responsive mental health services is problematic as many arrive from countries where large scale violence, sexual assault and persecution are prevalent.

The consequences of these complex traumatic situations linger in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, substance abuse depression, and challenges in family relationships. Refugees are approximately ten times more likely than non-refugees to have PTSD[4] and three times more likely to develop depression and anxiety[5], while access to mental health treatment is limited due to a number of factors including language barriers, stigma and lack of appropriate training of psychotherapists.

To address this, Dr. Rashmi Gangamma, associate professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Syracuse University (MFT), approached the Multicultural Association of Medical Interpreters (MAMI) to identify ways in which some of these barriers could be reduced.

Through a series of meetings with MAMI and members of the New American community, an idea emerged for a collaborative approach targeting two needs: training psychotherapy students to deliver culturally informed psychotherapy for refugee populations and training language interpreters to effectively interpret psychotherapy sessions with individuals, couples and families.

“Throughout our work we’ve noticed each family member has experienced different traumas and circumstances and they don’t always adapt at the same speed,” said Gangamma. “It’s important for us to spend time with each family member including parents, children and even extended family to target their specific issues.”

The Central New York Community Foundation provided MFT with a $19,760 grant to launch a free training workshop that brings together interpreters in training from MAMI and her psychotherapy students at SU to learn and work collaboratively. The workshop, launched in January 2019, will utilize the grant to continue operations over a full one-year cycle.

The project will be completed in three phases. Phase one includes planning for the workshop with MAMI and community members; phase two is the actual workshop offered to both interpreters from MAMI and psychotherapy students at SU; and phase three involves a follow-up to assess the impact of the workshop.

“I believe training in conjunction with the community’s interpreters will be crucial for both interpreters and for mental health clinicians in our community,” said Shaelise Tor, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University who has closely worked with Dr. Gangamma. “It’s been a great experience to work with a multidisciplinary team to craft this training, because we each bring our own areas of knowledge.”

The Marriage and Family Therapy Department at Syracuse University is the only provider of free family therapy services to the community in Syracuse and has been serving Onondaga County since 1969. The department maintains relationships with refugee centers in Syracuse including the Bhutanese Community Center and RISE to provide and assess the family therapy needs of those communities.

In collaboration with MAMI, who has served Central New York since 1998, MFT hopes to build a stronger relationship between its department, interpreters, and refugee populations to ensure long-term access to mental health solutions in Syracuse.

[1] CNY Vitals (

[2] CNY Vitals (

[3] Semuels, 2015, “The Refugees Who Come Alone”, (

[4] Giacco & Priebe, “Mental Health Care for Refugees”, World Health Organization (

[5] Hameed, Sadiq, & Din, 2018, “The Increased Vulnerability of Refugee Population to Mental Health Disorders” Kansas Journal of Medicine (


Literacy Council Addressing Low Test Scores in Cortland County

In rural Cortland County, only 24% of third graders are testing proficiently on New York State English Language Arts exams. This is especially important because third grade marks a turning point in early education: at that time, children typically are expected to stop learning to read and begin reading to learn other subjects. To keep on track towards this goal, it is imperative that children enter Kindergarten ready to begin learning how to read. Unfortunately, all children do not enter school at the same level of readiness.

In 2017, only 56% of Cortland County children were deemed “ready” for Kindergarten when they entered school. If a child is not participating in a structured learning environment prior to school and their parents do not possess the resources or knowledge to prepare them, they enter with a disadvantage that will follow them year after year. But all hope is not lost. The Cortland County Literacy Council is setting out to break down barriers and help families create a lifestyle of learning for the region’s children.

Renee Marleau, community projects coordinator of Cortland Area Communities that Care, has been spearheading the Literacy Council since October 2017.

“There is an outstanding need for literacy work here,” she said. “Three-quarters of our students are not performing at grade level.”

Struggling with low literacy skills during early childhood is only the first obstacle in an uphill battle. Dropping out of high school is often not a sudden event; it is preceded by a cycle of failing to catch up and prolonged disengagement.

The Literacy Council, a partnership between Communities that Care, school districts county-wide and nonprofit agencies, was established to break this cycle and institute positive interventions in the lives of children. As if matching puzzle pieces, the groups joined together to determine how the long-talked-about need for literacy engagement could turn into tangible programs.

The school year has just come to an end, but Marleau is busy building a community where learning has no end date. The Literacy Council has several initiatives designed to prevent learning loss this summer. For the second year in a row, school districts are making summer school classes available to any interested student, not just those who need remediation. Additionally, its Books to Grow On program will distribute books to children aged 0-4 at their regular pediatric check-ups.

Two-thousand students also left school this year with a summer guide booklet brimming with tips for parents to encourage learning and an abundant list of free activities occurring at parks, museums and schools. Getting these resources into the hands of parents, guardians, or even babysitters is the first step in ensuring children will have opportunities to learn and practice the skills they obtained during the school year.

“Low literacy because is not an isolated problem,” said Robyn Smith, program officer at the Central New York Community Foundation. “It dramatically disadvantages people from partaking in employment and economic opportunities. An investment in early literacy intervention sees its returns in a thriving community for future generations.”

Marleau hopes that other counties struggling with literacy problems can look to Cortland’s Literacy Council as a source of inspiration for engaging with hard-to-reach populations. Since conventional tactics like workshops are not convenient for people spread across Cortland County’s wide geography, they must institute creative solutions. This summer, the Literacy Council will encourage teachable moments through activity posters tactfully hung throughout the community.

Besides creativity, Marleau discovered this problem must also be met with patience. For lasting impact, initiatives cannot rely on a one-and-done mentality.

“Everything we do is a long-term solution,” said Marleau. “We have considered who is involved in a child’s life and found the simplest things they can do each and every day to impact the child’s learning right there in the moment.”

The Cortland County Literacy Council is making literacy engagement a permanent lifestyle for Central New York children. Its efforts are sure to impact our region for the better.

To support or get in involved with the Cortland County Literacy Council, visit:

The Central New York Community Foundation supports the Cortland County Literacy Council through grant funding, which recently made the mass production of print materials possible. Through administrative support, the Community Foundation helps to ensure the Literacy Council is meeting all initiative objectives. Additionally, this relationship has linked the Literacy Council to organizations in other communities serving similar needs.