“My grandfather was a German refugee who begged to get out of Germany for five years and finally some distant, distant third-cousin signed for him to go and it was always traumatic when talked about,” CHS parent Serralesa Befeler said.
Most Americans share a history of immigration to America. Befeler’s personal history motivated her to find a way to help refugees. It was President Trump’s actions, however, that gave Befeler no other choice but to get involved.
“When Trump behaved in the manner that he did, it was traumatic to me and I felt like I had to do something to change my community,” Befeler said.
Others stirred to action likewise sought opportunities to aid the refugees.
When Stan Shanker, Chair of the JCRC, Jewish Coalition for New Americans, learned that refugee parents would have to sacrifice their English classes at the Institute to care of their children over the summer, he was motivated to organize a four week summer camp that would enable the parents to still attend English class. The JCRC enlisted over 100 volunteers to run the camp. Befeler played a large role in organizing the camp, namely through recruiting volunteers. There, Refugee children participated in music, yoga, art projects, science experiments and a petting zoo.
“The Jewish community was trying to be one front because a lot of people wanted to help. Instead of having a lot of different organizations working independently to assist the refugees, the whole Jewish community came together to help,” she said.
Befeler believes that the Jewish affiliation of the camp’s sponsorship has its roots in a collective recognition of the common Jewish experience.
“The refugees from World War II are still fresh in many people’s memory, and the Jewish community got a lot of Russian Jews out in the 1990’s so there was a precedent set to work and do this,” she said. “And it felt like it was something we needed outreach among the whole community for.”
The camp required significant fundraising efforts. Ultimately, Shanker was encouraged by the generosity of the local Jewish community.
“The camp was meaningful on many levels. I was utterly amazed at the unconditional love and support exhibited by our Jewish community. In just 45 days, we were able to enlist over 100 volunteers as camp counselor, raise over $7000, and provide a safe environment for approximately 45 children,” he said.
One of the camps volunteers, Wydown English teacher Deb Baker, believes the camp experience transformed her as a person and reiterated the importance of welcoming refugees to America.
“I got more than I gave at the camp. I grew and I have learned and I have become a better person because of the encounters that I had with people who are in different situations than I am,” Baker said. “It is so important to show refugees that they are welcome in our community.”
Out of the numerous teenage volunteers, many were CHS students. Baker was inspired by the outpouring of support from the Clayton community.
“I could not have been more proud of the way that the students interacted with the kids. They modeled human decency and were tremendous role models for the younger kids. It made me really proud to not only be part of this camp but also to be a part of the Clayton community to see how our high school students were rising to the challenges that come with running a camp and how sensitive they were to the needs of the kids,” Baker said.
CHS senior Sam Humphreys was recruited to participate by Befeler and volunteered all four weeks.
“I thought it would be a meaningful experience. The most enjoyable part of the camp was seeing the kids joke and play around and having a great time. My favorite moment was the huge parade around the International Institute where the kids were holding up American flags and shouting ‘USA!’ It was very heartwarming,” he said.
Befeler believes that the camp was a transformative experience for both the refugee children and the volunteers.
“Besides their language skills improving, their social skills improved and they also got more comfortable; there was a huge difference between the first week and the last week in terms of their comfort level. Unlike school that can be rigorous, I really believe the camp was just a positive experience for all the kids,” she said. “I think it helped the volunteers also; it was as positive for them as it was for the kids.”
As divisive as the politics of the refugee situation may be, Baker remains optimistic.
“I hope that we helped both the kids and their parents have a sense that we are just so thrilled that they are part of our community,” Baker said. “They are going to make our community richer and more beautiful.”