Teaching kids about refugees

For Deb Coffey, a member of the Highland Ward, Sandy Utah Granite South Stake, it has been “sweet and tender” to witness the contributions of individuals, families and groups to refugees. Sister Coffey, as executive director of the Utah Refugee Center, has seen an influx of donations of time, talents and goods, which has only gained momentum in the weeks following invitations by Church leadership to serve refugees.

Some of the most “touching” contributions have come from children, Sister Coffey noted. She has a video of two young girls “with the brightest, most cheery faces,” who recently came and volunteered at the center.

“I put together bags for refugees and I’m way super excited,” explains a girl who is perhaps 9 or 10.

“The power of children never ceases to amaze me with how loving and accepting they are,” Sister Coffey said.

That love was recently witnessed by Michelle Mullis, a member of the Lorin Farr 3rd Ward, Ogden Utah Lorin Farr Stake. Sister Mullis had been teaching her 11-year-old daughter, Anna, and other children in a book club about Corrie ten Boom and the role she played in helping Jewish refugees in Holland during World War II. During the General Women’s Session of the 186th Annual General Conference Sister Linda K. Burton, Relief Society general president, issued the invitation to “prayerfully determine what you can do — according to your own time and circumstance — to serve the refugees living in your neighborhoods and communities.”

Sister Mullis said that she “just cried” as she listened to Sister Burton’s address. “I thought, ‘That’s it! This is what we need to do,’ ” she said.

Sister Mullis searched online and found the local refugee center website which included a list of current needs. From the list, Sister Mullis let her daughter and the other children decide what they wanted to contribute and the group went about gathering items for hygiene kits — including shampoo, lotion, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste and combs — as well as fleece to make into blankets. On Friday, April 15, the group gathered to deliver their offering.

“[The kids] loved it!” Sister Mullis said. “They had all watched conference and heard the invitation and then got to go out the very next week and put it into action. They loved being able to serve and [follow] the direction they had received.”

Although delivering the items was satisfying for the children, an important part of the process, Sister Mullis explained, was learning about refugees — how they live, their challenges and their needs.

In addition to studying Corrie ten Boom, the group talked about refugees within their own country. They also researched refugee camps — what they looked like and what it’s like to live there.

“Photos helped the kids visualize and helped make it real for them,” Sister Mullis said.

Kristie Deeds, who serves as Primary president in the Hegessy Ward, Sandy Utah Granite Stake, recently organized a service project for her Primary during which they collected socks and underwear for children — from toddler to 16 years old — to donate to the refugee center. In preparation, they showed a short video clip from a local news station of a family receiving new bedding, food and supplies for their house.

The children were “glued to the video clip,” Sister Deeds said. “It spurred a lot of questions.”

Sister Coffey said that any newspaper article or story that shares someone’s struggles or challenges can be tailored or brought down to a level so that even a young child can understand.

Her own granddaughter, who just turned 3, recently asked her, “Grammy, can we buy this for the refugees?”

“She doesn’t completely understand what we’re doing, but — even at a such a young age — she understands that there is an endearing and tender nature to the service component and she can feel that,” Sister Coffey said.

Studying refugees can be a broad topic so Sister Coffey suggested picking one country to focus on. “Once you have found a community or a country that resonates with you, you can take that deeper dive and look at the cultural aspects of the country and the people from there,” Sister Coffey said.

Study their food, traditions and the way they celebrate holidays or their religious differences. “All of those things will open up and spur good and healthy conversations between family members,” Sister Coffey said.

Helping children become informed propels them forward in service, Sister Mullis said. After looking at photos of the refugee camps and seeing how some refugees live, “the kids were ready to do whatever they could to help.”

Sister Coffey said, “We sometimes place limitations on children. … I have found that children actually do understand and are much more capable than we think. It’s up to us to instill in them those sweet and tender beliefs that every one of us is a child of God and that we all have immense contributions to make here on this earth.”

Since their visit to the refugee center, Sister Mullis said her daughter is excited about what they can do next. The center collects items for birthday bags that include a new toy and outfit. “So we’ve talked about doing a big birthday party and asking people to bring gifts for the refugee children.”

Looking outside of their normal social sphere helped them see more opportunities, Sister Coffey noted. “It teaches you to have eyes to see the needs around you.”

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