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Coffee, Advice, Friendship: Newcomer Club Helps Build Community
Coffee, Advice, Friendship: Newcomer Club Helps Build Community

Once a month, parents come together to share information and advice, and most importantly, to build community.

Author: Liliana Castañeda de Rossmann, Ph.D., PA VP

On the last Wednesday of every month after drop-off at the fabled Clocktower Café, parents both new and seasoned, come together to seek and share information and advice, and most importantly, to build community.

"Where can I buy good bread?" is one of the many questions new parents ask upon joining GISSV. Other popular ones are "Where do I get my driver's license?" "What do I put inside a Schultüte," and "What options do I have for meeting my 20 hours of volunteer time?" While the answers to some of these questions might be found in various school documents, such as the Parent Participation Regulations, the one-stop shop for these and most other informal yet important questions is the parent-driven Newcomer Club.

Former GISSV parent Susanne Reinhold Hauffe, who arrived in the middle of the 2005-2006 school year, found it harder for her family to integrate than if they'd arrived in August. She shared her concerns with the School Leadership and the Board and began informally inviting newly-arrived and well-established parents to join her for coffee and conversation.

Fast forward 14 years and now, on the last Wednesday of every month after drop-off at the fabled Clocktower Café, parents both new and seasoned, come together to seek and share information, advice, life hacks, recommendations for goods and services, and most importantly, to build community. Whether new parents are locally based or expats, the Newcomer Club has something for everybody.

"I come for the conversation and to meet other parents," says Regina, whose four and six year old children began their education at GISSV this academic year. And just as she said that, one parent asked about the name of the coffee beverage on the table. Anyone who has traveled beyond their comfort zone (different country, culture, language, cuisine, or currency) knows that ordering food and drinks in a restaurant can be enervating and disconcerting. The Newcomer Club gives parents a safe opportunity to practice these mostly-routine yet sometimes consternating tasks. A two year veteran, Shai, has a fifth grader and an 8th grader. "It feels like I just arrived, and yet [my time here] has given me experience as a GISSV parent that feels like I have been here over ten years."

During the summer, Michelle Bonau, GISSV Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, sends the contact information of new parents to the Newcomer Club coordinators. They introduce themselves, the Club's mission, and the meeting times. "The first meeting happens the last Wednesday in August, at Whisman Park," says Nodira, who is the contact for new parents of children in Kibili and Preschool. "At this first meeting, parents learn about other social groups, such as the runners and walkers group, and those who meet for yoga, singing, or volleyball," she adds. Other groups who provide parents the ability to log volunteer hours, such as the Recycling Team and the Green Team, also attend this first informational meeting to provide parents as many options to contribute and socialize as possible. "The Newcomer Club also welcomes the families that come during the course of the school year as well. I always give them a heads up about when the family will be starting, what homerooms the children will be in, and where they are coming from. When a family comes during the year, the Newcomer Club also informs the Parent Reps of the classes in which the new students will be. The Parent Reps then let the other families of the class know that there will be a new addition to the class," explains Bonau.

Sabine's first visit to the Newcomer Club was in October 2018, although her two children started attending GISSV two years ago. She remembers receiving information about the Club, but had not found an opportunity to attend until now. "New parents have different needs, some we can meet, others are beyond our reach," says Angelika, the coordinator for parents of students in high school. Daniela came the first time the group met after she arrived and has nothing but praise for NCC. "Every question – dentists, hair stylists, groceries, DMV – can be asked. Some parents want to know 'Is such-and-such normal?' and there is usually someone who has asked the same thing or who can help them feel 'normal'," she adds. A comprehensive guide for Newcomers is available through a link on the school website (Parent Portal > Parent Information > Newcomer Guide 2017), although this document is currently available only in German.

Resources and social connections promoted by the Newcomer Club can be especially helpful for parents like Ana, whose family arrived to the Bay Area from Brazil in October of this year. She had lived in Sunnyvale previously and learned about the school then; although she does not speak German, she sought housing near the "Wagon Wheel" and Whisman Park neighborhoods where the school is located. "My four year old daughter was born at Lucille Packard [Hospital], so I knew how to get around, but I come [to NCC] to get to know other families." In one of life's many happy coincidences, Ana met Caroline at the NCC, another Brazilian mom who has a child in the same class. In turn, this mom is turning to the NCC for recommendations about language schools. "I lived in Germany several years ago and I speak German, but I would like to improve both my English and Spanish skills," says Caroline, whose children (aged three, four, and eleven) began attending in September and are adjusting to their new environment.

With the growing diversity in linguistic, cultural, and national identities of families at GISSV, the Newcomer Club functions as a casual yet vital place for such diverse individuals to mingle and cross-pollinate. A heart-warming anecdote of what the NCC can do to advance GISSV's mission to "inspire students [...] to become global citizens [in] a multicultural dual-language environment that promotes responsibility, critical thinking and academic excellence" comes from Nodira. As she tells it, "a local GISSV family wanted to vacation in Switzerland and needed some tips about sightseeing." They connected with a family of Swiss expats who not only provided them with many ideas, but also arranged to meet them in Switzerland during their trip. "And they first met by coming to the Newcomer Club!" she quips.