Serving their neighbors from around the world
Refugees and immigrants from around the world use services at BHITC’s The Hope Center (The Center), and some of its volunteers come from right around the corner!
Their West Park neighborhood has been home to The Center since 2015 and many of The Hope Center students are their neighbors. Eileen Wilson, BHITC’s Director of Refugee and Immigrant Ministries, estimates 75 percent of the students at The Center live in West Park or nearby in Lakewood. “The refugees and immigrants are part of the fabric of this neighborhood,” she said. “These volunteers are not just helping, but actually walking life with people. The Hope Center, in a way, is reshaping the neighborhood.”
Long-time West Park resident Bill Babington (left) began noticing the newcomers in his neighborhood long before he became a volunteer at The Center. One day, as he commuted home from his downtown Cleveland job, Babington saw a heavily laden trio of newcomers lugging a bulky sack of rice and speaking a language he did recognize. Babington offered the three a ride — not really sure where he might wind up taking them. Communicating mostly through hand signals, he ferried the trio to an apartment building not far from his own home.
Babington who had been mulling over ways to give back post-retirement, found out about The Center as he searched for opportunities. When he met with Wilson, “a heavy-hitter” he says, smiling, “I was blown away.” A month after he began volunteering, while lining up for coffee during a break in classes, Babington again encountered the Bhutanese woman who had been among the three people he took home from the Rapid station.
One of the many things he likes about volunteering so close tohome is that, “I live right here, too. It’s something we can all relate to,” he says. Babington helps out in citizenship classes at The Center, preparing students who want to take the test to become naturalized Americans. He shares their pride in their accomplishment and understands the effort it took to get there. His wife, a native of Thailand, became an American citizen in 1986.
Dana Buehner (left), another long-time West Park resident, had been stymied in her quest to volunteer with refugees and immigrants. It was only through a chance meeting that she discovered the opportunity was practically on her doorstep. Buehner, who works as a cardiac technician for an area hospital, was chatting one day with the daughter of an Iraqi patient. The daughter mentioned that she was a volunteer at a place that worked with refugees and immigrants. Buehner was stunned, and thrilled, to learn that place was in her own neighborhood.
She visited The Center in late 2017 and was struck by all the opportunities to volunteer. Yet, it wasn’t until one day as she sat in on a citizenship class and confessed to the students that she was still trying to figure out the best fit for her at The Center, that she found her place. “One of the students said, ‘You belong here with us,’” recalled Buehner, tearing up at the memory. Since early 2018 she has volunteered two nights a week in citizenship classes, often working one-on-one with a student as his/her test date approaches.
“I love it,” she said. “They’re here because they want to learn. There’s such an energy here. There’s such a community here. It’s comfortable, it’s welcoming, it’s loving and it’s hopeful.” As a West Park resident, “you’re proud that your own community is part of this.”
Like Buehner, Jim Bichl (left) is a member of Catholics for Justice at St. Mark, a West Park parish. Except for a few years spent in the military and on the West Coast, he’s lived in the community his whole life and is currently just down the street from The Center. But, although he’d passed the former church building regularly, Bichl didn’t know what went on inside until Buehner told him what she’d discovered.
After taking two introductory classes required for volunteers, Bichl realized that his packed schedule probably would not accommodate traditional volunteer tasks such as tutoring or helping out in classes, so he signed up to mow the grass, do building maintenance and pretty much tackle whatever need arose — from building shelves to sorting out a storage room or digging the Center’s van out of packed snow. Wilson calls him a “godsend.”
Heather Thacker, Hope Center Assistant and Mentoring Coordinator, grew up in West Park and still lives in the neighborhood. She called The Center a “hidden gem” in the community and said volunteers who come from the neighborhood bring something special to the table.
“I think it’s starting to build community, the idea that students and volunteers travel the same streets, go to the same grocery stores. I think it’s a different kind of relationship,” she said. “I just love that The Hope Center is here. It’s so cool to work in the same community I grew up in.”