Two Afghan refugees posting in front of Westminster Towers life plan community in Orlando
Mohebullah Zyarmal and Rohullah Azizi are two of the 42 Afghan refugees now working for Westminster Communities of Florida. Zyarmal and Azizi work at Westminster Towers, a life plan community in Orlando. (Credit: Westminster Communities of Florida)

A Florida senior living provider has found an innovative solution to its workforce challenges while extending its mission to help those in need.

After watching the crisis in Afghanistan unfold in August following the United States’ withdrawal from the country, and the ensuing Taliban takeover, Westminster Communities of Florida contacted Lutheran Social Services, the local resettlement agency, to ask about partnering to fold Afghan refugees into its open positions.

“Long-term care and senior housing has always had workforce and recurring challenges,” Westminster Communities Chief Human Resources Officer Mary Klein told McKnight’s Senior Living. “We’ve always had to think outside the box on how to do it smarter, faster, more creatively.”

A partnership

Now, as part of a partnership, Lutheran Social Services handles the case management side of the transaction, helping refugees with the process of onboarding into the American labor market. Westminster provides the jobs and supportive housing. 

To date, the organization has hired 42 Afghan refugees for positions in five of its continuing care retirement communities: Westminster Manor and Westminster Point Pleasant in Bradenton; Westminster Shores and Westminster Suncoast in St. Petersburg; and Westminster Towers in Orlando. 

The Afghan refugees coming into the state are screened in advance and already have strong ties to the United States through a State Department program. They generally are highly skilled and highly educated, Klein said.

Lutheran Social Services is expanding throughout the state and asked Westminster Communities to expand along with them, she said. The agency also is using Westminster’s program as an example to recruit other senior living providers in the state as employment sites.

Trinity Woods in Tulsa, OK, previously partnered with local churches and Catholic Charities of Eastern Oklahoma in a similar Afghan resettlement program late last year.

“It’s a win for us, a win for the Afghans and a win for our residents,” Klein said. “There are a lot of people in the country that need placement right now and certainly a lot of people needing team members in our business right now.”

Afghan refugees have been placed in positions ranging from human resources to housekeeping to dining services to maintenance. Westminster houses a total of 62 people, including spouses and children, as part of the effort.

Using a small monetary gift from its foundation, the provider is giving the refugees it hires funds to cover up to eight weeks of rent. Westminster is housing the refugees in rented apartments as well as in houses it owns adjacent to its campuses. The organization also provides food and furnishings with the help of its residents, outside agencies and its on-site thrift shops.

“We move them in, stock their cupboards and refrigerator for the first 30 days, provide free rent for the first month to eight weeks, depending on the paycheck cycle,” Klein said. “Then they take over the rent payments and self-sustain from there.”

Westminster, she said, recently decided that at the end of one year it will donate back to the Afghan workers any housing deposits the provider made on the refugees’ behalf, to further help them with their housing needs. 

“They come with no credit rating; their employment history doesn’t translate,” she said. “We provide that for their foundation.”

Contagious gratefulness

The program has benefited the community “in more ways than I thought possible,” Klein said. The gratefulness of the Afghan refugees is contagious and has affected how some of Westminster’s own staff members look at their own work and contributions to the organization’s mission, she added.

“I can’t stress enough how it’s been a positive program, not only from a workforce-filling-position perspective, but on our culture, mission, resident engagement — everything,” Klein said. “Residents have taken ownership, and their teammates have taken ownership.”

Klein said that along with providing food and donations, residents — many of them former educators — and employees started English as a Second Language classes. Residents also have taken Afghan workers grocery shopping and to physician appointments, and they have solicited donations and support from local church groups. The result has been gifts of bicycles and bicycle helmets, computers and supplies. 

“It’s just been completely surprising to me how many people have such generosity in their heart for this program,” Klein said. “It’s a fabulous way for us to have our team members in the community and the community to be involved with us.”

She said she expects social service agencies to begin contacting the company to help Ukrainian refugees next. 

“My hope is, we do continue to grow and expand the program,” she said. “I think they’ve brought so much to us, and we’ve learned so much from them.”