STUDENT CONNECTION members at the dinner at Sacred Heart.
STUDENT CONNECTION members at the dinner at Sacred Heart.

Sacred Heart parish in Lake George is helping to promote diversity and create international friendships through its assistance with the Lake George Student Connection program.

The locally-based program is designed for J1 visa immigrants. These travelers, typically college-aged students, participate in a work or study exchange visitor program with businesses or colleges in the United States.

At Student Connection, students from around the globe are invited to come work in the Lake George area, get paid and be exposed to a new culture and new experiences. This year, students from Columbia, Nigeria, Italy and elsewhere have traveled to the area for work.

“J1 visa students are essential to Lake George, because there’s not enough workers in the summer,” said Howard Nicols, a member of Student Connection. Every summer, around 1,000 J1 students work in places like Six Flags Great Escape amusement park, motels and restaurants.

Last year, evidence began to surface that some students were being taken advantage of by employees and landlords. Student workers could be cheated out of proper wages or housed in rooms with poor living conditions.

In response, Student Connection created a hospitality committee to ensure that students are informed of their rights and have a resource to turn to if they encounter any issues.

Sheryl Dybas, a parishioner at Sacred Heart, got involved with the committee last summer when she saw the issues and wanted to help.

“It’s very necessary these kids have a good experience here,” she told The Evangelist. “Last year they had bad experiences, and that shook up the local government.”

Mrs. Dybas said that churches in Lake George really “stepped up to the plate” after the hospitality committee was created. Along with Sacred Heart, the local Presbyterian and Methodist churches are now involved in the committee: “The uplifting thing is seeing everybody working together,” said Mrs. Dybas.

The Student Connection committee met with the staff of Lake George mayor Robert Blais and had separate monthly meetings to plan how to better serve J1 students this summer.

In May, Student Connection held an orientation dinner at Sacred Heart parish to welcome the J1 students. Rev. Joseph Busch, pastor, offered the space for the event; in the winter, Sacred Heart hosts a free dinner every Wednesday night, so the parish was well equipped for hosting.

At the orientation, the hospitality committee distributed handbooks they made for students, answering questions about the program and what to do if they need help. J1 students were also given backpacks and participated in a raffle where 16 donated bikes were given away.

Parish volunteers assisted with the dinner. “The kids seemed to really love” it, said Mrs. Dybas.

Kathy Dorman, administrative assistant at Sacred Heart, had her daughter-in-law bring a puppy for the students to play with. “The kids went nuts for that,” said Mrs. Dybas. “I don’t think the kids wanted to leave.”

On July 18, the parish hosted another, hospitality-oriented dinner for the Student Connection teens.

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