Welcome Belmont program looks to bridge cultural divides in Dayton

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DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — While most students may spend their summer vacation as a break from school, others are already becoming familiar with classmates they never have spoken with.

As a team-building exercise, a group of about 20 students from Belmont High School traveled to Cincinnati. The group was taking a tour of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

It is a place that can offer lessons in breaking down barriers.

It is something the students are already doing in their high school.

“It’s fun and it’s great to be able to talk to different types of people and learn about their culture,” said Ericka Ankeney, a freshman at Belmont High School.

The group was part of a pilot program at Belmont High School called “Welcome Belmont.” It started in the summer of 2015 with help from Welcome Dayton, Sinclair Community College, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and other local organizations.

The premise of the program was to pair students raised in Dayton with students who have immigrated with their families to the Miami Valley.

“We have lots to learn from each other,” said Karl Penn, an advisor for Welcome Belmont. “Just because you’re not from America does not mean you don’t have knowledge or you don’t have insight.”

It all started with the 20 students, hand-picked by advisors to carry the program through its first year.

During the summer, students met for the first time building relationships and breaking down language barriers through trust exercises and games.

“They had to communicate in ways without using language,” said Penn. “So they were coaching each other and they were teaching each other. It was incredible to see because they did not know each other before this.”

A year later, that group has become the first class to finish the Welcome Belmont program.

Organizers hope it will be the beginning of breaking down barriers in schools and the community.

“Kids from the east side and a kid from Kenya, they’re sitting at the table like this just talking because they felt like they found a friend, a confidant,” said Penn.

A new friend the students in the group believe will create long-lasting memories.

“I like talking to them because they’re funny,” said Maurita Lansangan, a freshman at Belmont High Schoo. “It’s just a lot better because we get to know them and they’re just like us.”

Organizers are hoping to bring the program to other schools in Dayton in the near future.

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