A couple of years ago, Alison Hoeman put out some feelers for donations to support two refugee families she anticipated coming to Phillips Elementary School, where she’s an ELL teacher. She’d mounted similar efforts during stints as a teacher overseas in places like Honduras, Colombia and Paraguay.
Little did she realize the wellspring of goodwill she was tapping, one that overflowed those immediate needs and has since spread across the district. We shared some photos from the most recent example that proves the point, a Free Stuff Store that Alison coordinated on December 1 to benefit DMPS refugees who need, and are receiving, much more than the education that is the district’s primary mission.
“I started Des Moines Refugee Support after talking and working with Firmin Ntakimazi, who is the district’s Swahili and Kirundi translator (and a Burundi refugee himself),” Alison said. “We saw the need for our refugee population to get some added support,” she understated.
What she actually started was a family, an extensive, extended one. One branch of it was so overcome with gratitude by Hoeman’s help they named a newborn daughter after her last year. And last Thanksgiving, Hoeman, her husband and their parents hosted and shared a meal prepared by Syrian refugee guests.
The event linked above was held at the First Church of Nazarene on Douglas Avenue in northwest Des Moines and drew a crowd of several hundred refugees. Immediately afterwards, Hoeman and her counterpart at the church, Emily Brueck, began restocking for the next event, tentatively scheduled for sometime in March.
“Many Congolese refugee students go to school at Monroe, Meredith and Hoover, so several teachers and staff from those schools have become involved,” according to Hoeman. “Lesley Christiansen, Joanne Conradi, Regan Davidson, Morgan Maharry, Anna Douglas, Robin Duncan, Anne Parenza (Monroe), Cara Lutes (now at Garton), Jillea Bueso (Meredith), Kathy Winger (Meredith and Hoover). And from other schools: Megan Davidson (Samuelson) Megan Sapon Amoah (Oak Park) Joy Martin (Brubaker), Sara Kizzier (Phillips), Andrea Kastorff (Ruby Van Meter). Lisa Rassmussen (Phillips) has helped too, and also does a lot of work with several Syrian Refugee families through her church and on her own.”
It’s a big, growing family.
Besides bare necessities like food, clothing and shelter, Alison et al. do all of the other stuff families do, too. Like get kids to and from soccer practice. And take them to the amusement park. And get them tickets to ballgames. And take them trick-or-treating. And make sure Santa Claus pays them a visit. Care for them, in essence, in so many ways.
All of this in addition to being their schoolteachers.
“It is mostly about making sure that kids get to have all kinds of ‘American’ experiences that they would otherwise miss out on because their parents are so focused on just making enough money to pay the bills,” Hoeman said.
The role of Brueck and her church is also critical to the groundswell of outreach.
She grew up at First Church of Nazarene and is still a member, though she now lives across town where her own kids attend Brubaker Elementary School and Hoyt Middle School.
The church provides a gathering space, a sanctuary, for the growing African refugee community in its neighborhood, and warehouses donations as they accumulate between the Free Stuff Store events.
“We’re a small congregation now,” Brueck said while she and Alison stacked and stashed inventory at the church on Wednesday, “but we can still find ways to welcome these refugees and help them adjust to new lives in a strange place.”
If you’d like to help too, start by checking out the Des Moines Refugee Support Facebook page.
“I am amazed at all of the teachers who spend their days with children who speak minimal English, have violent histories, tragic backstories and difficult home lives, and then spend their free time making sure that these same children get to have amazing experiences outside of school,” said Hoeman.
So are we.
Santa and his vaunted elves got nothin’ on Alison & Co.