Ten years ago as I began Heartfelt Tidbits, I wrote: “we face the greatest refugee crisis since World War II.” According to the UNHCR 2008 Global Trend Report, there were some 42 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2008. This includes 15.2 million refugees, 827,000 asylum-seekers (pending cases) and 26 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The latest numbers from UNHCR were published for mid-2017 and show 65.6 million people displaced worldwide.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to look at the statistics. They become overwhelming and cause a temporary paralysis from the thought that the problem is too big for one person to solve. Then there’s a call, text or email that pulls me back in and nudges me to make some positive impact regardless of how small and to focus on the change I can make.
When I began this work in 2008 it was to allow me to feel good about who I was as a human being. I was working in a career where my peers and I would spend our free time in beautiful settings, sipping on fine wine, discussing who had the bigger home, nicer car, home theatre system, how to get ahead in corporate America. While I enjoyed my career and being a mother, I began to feel as if I was a stranger to myself.
I no longer was speaking out about the wrongs of the world and had become compliant in building out a story that would look good in the local business courier or neighborhood magazine. I spent time making sure my nails and hair were done, I served on boards and always dressed one step above the client. I carried myself into meetings as though I was the most important person in the room and relished in my success. Despite all of this I still felt an emptiness in my heart and a yearning that I was meant to do more with my life. I discussed this feeling with my dear friend who said throw the question to the universe and see what happens. I laughed and openly said “universe what should I be doing?” The next day I intercepted the email that forever changed my life.
Many of you reading this who have heard of Heartfelt Tidbits know the story. I met my first refugee family Memorial Day 2008. After hearing their story I began to assist and after 5 years, left my career to make to dedicate myself to the work of welcoming and acclimating new Americans to their new homes.
I was goal driven and needed goals for this project so I decided the success factor would be the refugees themselves. I quickly learned how long it took persons to acclimate, find jobs and become self-sufficient from nationwide resettlement agencies and set my bar higher. I learned and explored what they found worked and didn’t work. The local social workers shared with me their past experiences with successful groups and those that struggled. I took these best practices and implemented it into the daily work we were doing.
Within two years we were measuring newcomers were employed within 8 weeks, speaking enough English to ride a bus and navigate their new city, neighbors were more than willing to provide the long welcome, churches opened their doors, and offered to help. Refugees were beginning to purchase their own homes, young adults were attending college and calling people began to say they felt like Cincinnati was home.
During this time I noticed that there was a population of people, the older, disabled and mothers, that felt alone and isolated. They weren’t living in a camp and their families were too busy to spend time with them. These individuals longed for the human touch. To address this we began what we still call today “the Friday program.” We first met at a nursing home that was combined with a convent that was owned by Mercy Health and the Franciscan Sisters. This is when friendships began to bloom, learned about our new neighbors’ passion for gardening, learning English and excitement to feel needed and included again. Not only did the refugees’ blossom but Heartfelt Tidbits did as well.
I felt challenged to find inclusive activities, grow our partnerships and volunteers and realized that while I had passion and drive, I wasn’t enough. I was building a community not just merely a nonprofit organization. I met with like-minded individuals in Cincinnati, who were letting their passions lead them on the same journey to learn and brainstorm ideas.
Persons began to ask me what was in it for me. This is when I began to reflect on what I was getting out of this mission. There wasn’t the six-figure income and bonus checks for goals being met that drove me in corporate America. As I reflected I learned that my soul was being fed. Not only was I helping others but I was learning from them. I began to become patient, started taking time to reflect on the importance of sharing a cup of tea with someone, saw the importance of life itself. I no longer felt that I needed designer clothes, painted nails, and an egotistical stride to draw attention. I could be that empathetic, warm, gentle and funny person that loved other human beings and be just as powerful.
Fast forward to today, ten years later. Would I say that this has been an easy journey? Absolutely not. There have been many days where I have cried thinking about the stories I heard that day or the frustration of fighting for the rights of refugees and immigrants in our current day administration. The little girl part of me questions while some agencies don’t play nicely with each other and long to make it right. I question our current administration and the racism I see each and every day, along with the lack of compassion towards human beings.
On those hardest days, I do just as I did when I was in corporate America. I sit down and write down the successes so I can remember why I do this work and the importance of it. Here’s a part of that list:
- Over 10 years, Heartfelt Tidbits have shared our heart a tidbit at a time with more than 40,000 refugees and immigrants.
- We have 86 partners that help us in our journey. I truly love our partners and feel as blessed to have met them as I feel to meet our newest neighbors. They fill me with energy and passion each and every day. I’m proud to say that some of our oldest partners who believed in us in our infancy, The Franciscan Ministries: Franciscan’s For The Poor, Ascension Lutheran Church, Turner Farms and Seven Hills Middle School, are still with us today.
- There are 110 active volunteers that share the love each and every day through some tidbit of activity with our newest neighbors. Our oldest volunteers outside of my family members who some think are forced to help are Ron Fettig, Giri Sapkota, the Ghimire and Chamlagai family.
- Many of our first refugee families now not only own their own home but rent to other new neighbors so they too can extend the long welcome.
- We’ve witnessed many religious ceremonies, high school and college graduations, births, weddings and new home celebrations.
- We are fortunate to have so many who have donated their time, physical items and money while taking a leap of faith that we’ll be good stewards of this. For this, we’re forever grateful.
- In 2017, we evolved our partnership with Wave Pool for a social enterprise, The Welcome Project. There we mentor our newest neighbors who are aspiring entrepreneurs or owned businesses in their homeland, along with employing some of the persons who have talents to share with the city. The location has lent itself to become a hub for artists, the community of Camp Washington, and enabled UC students and staff, to partner with us for capstone projects, friendships, and volunteer engagements.
Now I’m asking myself where do I and Heartfelt Tidbits go from here. This is a question I’ve yet to resolve. To date, we’ve been 100% volunteer based. The number of people we serve on a weekly basis is equal to what I served in year one. Refugees and immigrants are coming in with difficulties and struggles that require more care and attention. Our programs now span 7 days per week and my days have gone from a few hours per week to countless hours.
Our board recognizes to be sustainable, we’ll need to take an intentional approach and expand with paid staff. This Fall we’ll be sharing our first Americorp employee with our partner Tikkun Farm.
We plan on taking the model we have created and sharing it with others in cities across the United States so they too can provide the long welcome.