We take refuge for example when it starts to rain, we like to find a shelter. The Buddhist’s shelter from the rain of problems and pain of life is threefold: the Buddha, his teachings (the Dharma) and the spiritual community (the Sangha). So to take refuge means that we have some understanding about suffering, and we have confidence that the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha (the “Three Jewels”) can help us helping ourself. However never take refuge in Buddhism to avoid problems in this very life, there are many non-religious (and religious) organisations you could join to do so, but we should take refuge to avoid problems in future lives, or even better, to avoid future uncontrolled rebirths, by dealing with it here and now.
By taking refuge in the Buddha is you letting go of holding back just as Buddha has done (remember everyone can be a Buddha). By taking refuge in the spiritual community you are joining a group of people who are letting go of holding back, but the help you get is a set of tools, you still need to do it, however you are able to join a group of people taking refuge and working hard, which in itself is comfort.
By doing it yourself you will grow, enabling you to do better next time around.
The Prayer(3 times):
To the Buddha, the Dharma and the sublime community, I go for refuge until I am enlightened. From the virtuous merits I collect by practicing giving and other perfections, may I quickly attain buddha-hood in order to lead each and every sentient being into that unsurpassable state.
Two of my favorite teachers of Meditation and Buddhism (Alice and Rob) use this as the introduction to the evening, I just love to listen to them say it.