By Casey Adams Church News
Heeding a call to service from the Church’s “I Was a Stranger” effort, a Colorado resident discovered a desire within her Denver community to aid local refugee families.
Jenny Champoux of the Littleton Colorado Stake led an effort to assemble hundreds of personal hygiene kits in a project that began as a way to get acquainted with her cul-de-sac neighbors, all of whom come from different faiths and backgrounds. The First Presidency and auxiliary presidencies of the Church released in October 2015 and March 2016 letters inviting members to find ways to serve the vulnerable refugee populations in their communities.
Sister Champoux said sometimes Church members gravitate toward serving alongside other Relief Society, quorum or ward members, but for this project she intentionally sought to involve others beyond local Church members.
“We were trying to take it outside the ward a little bit,” she said.
“It’s also a great opportunity to get to know our neighbors better and bring them into our home and have them get to know what we’re all about,” added Sister Champoux, who — with her husband, Mark, and three children — first hosted her neighbors in May 2016.
“A refugee service project is a really great way to do that because it’s like no pressure — you have an activity that people are involved in and that they want to be involved in. It’s just a great way to bring neighbors together.”
Community volunteers and Church members assembled 250 hygiene kits, which will be distributed through the Denver Health Foundation by Champoux family members on March 26 during the foundation’s Refugee Outreach Clothing Kids (R.O.C.K.) event. The personal hygiene kits contain basic toiletry essentials such as shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, bar soap, deodorant and a small towel, among other items.
More than $3,500 worth of donated hygiene materials by Sister Champoux and her community were collected and organized for her refugee service project.
With the success of the small neighborhood effort, which initially produced 50 personal hygiene kits, Sister Champoux coordinated with her stake leaders to do a similar project for the Stake Women’s Conference held on March 4.
Not knowing all her neighbors’ email addresses or phone numbers, Sister Champoux recalled a website her Relief Society group uses to help organize signing up to take meals to other ward members.
Sister Champoux printed invitational flyers and delivered them to nearly a dozen households on her block and included a link to SignUpGenius, a free online coordinating service, so each household could sign up to contribute batches of ten items at a time.
“It’s a real easy way to keep track of the items you’re getting so you don’t end up with 100 bars of soap and no shampoo, and so people can see what is still needed,” she said of the SignUpGenius online service.
Robin Engleberg serves as program manager at the Denver Health Foundation and will head the distribution of the more than 5,000 new clothing items being offered during the R.O.C.K event to refugee children, who have arrived with their families in coordination with the United Nations and the U.S. government.
She said when these refugees resettle in Denver, the foundation provides their health care and the organization typically services up to 600 refugees in a given year.
“These are people who are coming from the darkest places on our planet, and they have suffered tremendous, tremendous hardships,” the program manager said. “I can’t even describe what these families have gone through. And now that they’re here, we really want them to know that we appreciate what they’ve gone through and we want them to succeed.”
“We have families that come here who have literally spent an entire generation in a refugee camp,” she added, “and life in a refugee camp is really nothing more than being on life support. You get the same food every single day, and you get just enough to keep you alive.”
Newly arrived refugee families must carefully manage the small financial stipend they receive during their re-location, and often are forced to choose between buying hygiene products or simple clothing items such as shoes. Many refugee families arrive from tropical or temperate climates and are completely unprepared for the colder temperatures found in Denver.
Sister Champoux organized assembling the personal hygiene kits without having met any of the local refugees face-to-face. The March 26 distribution event will be the first time she and her family will get to meet these refugees as they hand off the personal kits.
The R.O.C.K. event leader pointed out that there is a real child at the end of the road of a project like this, and they can shake hands and they can meet each other; they can have a real friendly encounter. And that’s good for everybody, she said.
“For families that have children, those children are going to be teachers for the family, and they are the ones who will ... bring them success,” the Denver Health Foundation project manager said.
“Kids are often the translators not only of language for their parents and grandparents, but they are the transmitters of culture for them. And we have a lot of faith in those kids.”
Casey Adams is a features writer and reporter for Deseret News. Contact him at [email protected] or (801) 236-6068 or on Twitter @casey907.