Ozarks students gather clothes, toys for refugee population

Release Date: 2/21/2012

The country of Burma, also known as Myanmar, is 8,614 miles away. When families of the Karen ethnic minority fled the brutal conditions in their country, risking their lives, they left behind everything they had ever owned and the only way of life they knew. Thanks to the fact the United States government accepts political refugees in such situations, many of them have now found a home here in Clarksville, and through the help of local industry, employment.

But they need a great deal of help adjusting to living in a culture vastly different than their own, and so several concerned individuals and local groups are coming together to help them get on their feet.

One such group is Sigma Alpha, U of O's Sociology club, which gathered clothes and shoes all last week to donate to these families.

"My wife Holli and I attended a welcome fair at the Marvin Vinson Center in January for the Burmese refugees who have recently relocated to Clarksville," said U of O Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies Dr. Jesse Weiss. "We were taken by the hospitality of our community, the joyful spirit of the people, but also the amount of need we saw.  We were able to make some contacts with a number of groups from the community who could use the help of our campus."

Ozarks student Kelly Gorny.

Ozarks student Kelly Gorny takes a few minutes to share some love with a young child as a group of volunteers brought clothing and shoes to the families.

The needs of the new residents are great, as are the opportunities to volunteer and make a difference in their lives. Plans are underway now for ESL classes, cooking lessons, and a community garden to be made available to those interested, including the refugees. U of O's Planet Club and Ozarks Outdoors have expressed in interest in helping with the community garden or in other ways.

"This is a perfect opportunity for our students, especially those with community service requirement and/or who participate in our student organizations, to make a real difference in the lives of people who badly need our help," said Dr. Weiss.

"They are wonderful people," says Kelly Hardgrave, a volunteer who has spent countless hours in past weeks helping the new Clarksvillites negotiate the complexities of life here most of us take for granted - going to the doctor, getting driving permits, even shopping for groceries. "So many people and agencies have already been stepping up to the plate, and we certainly need all the help we can get. These are hard-working people and grateful for our help, but their previous lives were very different than they are now, and their circumstances dire, so we want to help them learn how to live here successfully."

The Sigma Alpha clothing drive at Ozarks resulted in collecting more than 400 items including clothing, shoes, and other accessories. According to Sigma Alpha President Monica Linares, however, the families are still in need of larger things - couches, baking and cooking pans, TVs, clocks, VHS movies, and any other household items. Beds are in short supply. "Many of them are sleeping on the floor at this time," she said.

Kelly Gorny, an Early Childhood Education major from Clarksville, found the experience deeply rewarding. "Some of my friends and I donated clothes through the organization on campus, so I thought it would be a great time to make some connections and see our giving put into action," she said. "It is always rewarding to serve others. It was really exciting to meet the Karen families and love on them for the morning, through simply smiling at them, by holding their sweet babies, or having conversations with the English speakers and starting to form relationships. I particularly felt blessed to have met Nana, a 21-year-old girl who has been in the USA since she was 17 and speaks English well. We traded information and I hope to keep in touch with her. I'm excited to see what opportunities God presents to our community by bringing the families to Clarksville, and I'm glad that I was able to play a small role in that."

There are several contact points for those interested in donating goods or services or volunteering their help. Dr. Jesse Weiss can be reached at jweiss@ozarks.edu, and a representative from the the Planet Club can be reached at mlina8637@ozarks.edu. Clothing can be donated c/o Lydia's Clothes Closet at 2126 W. Main at the First Assembly of God on Hwy 64 in Clarksville. Kelly Hardgrave also runs a children's clothes closet in Lamar. She can be reached at (479) 979-7331.