While many New England towns have sister communities, most of them are in Europe. By contrast, Brattleboro’s sisters are communities located in Haiti, El Salvador, Kenya and India, plus two Native American communities and a community in New York state linked with Brattleboro through the Charter for Compassion. The fifth anniversary of these sister community relationships is being celebrated by a series of interviews with representatives of these communities. This interview with Rob and Jeanne Walk, from of the Olean Area Charter for Compassion in New York, is the fifth.
Tell us about the major undertaking of helping a refugee family
Rob: Two refugee families from Honduras, one with a 20-year-old daughter and the second with a 6-year-old daughter, arrived in nearby Buffalo to find – to their amazement — beautifully furnished apartments ready and waiting for them.
We worked closely with four agencies: Jewish Family Services, Catholic Charities, Journey’s End Refugee Services, and the International Institute of Buffalo, which have been spearheading refugee resettlement efforts in western New York since 2003. Together, we collected the necessary furniture, blankets, pillows, bedding, kitchen equipment, and bathroom and cleaning supplies and had them all ready and waiting.
Jeanne: Despite the trauma these families had experienced and then scheduling delays on entering the U.S., the families were absolutely thrilled to find these accommodations awaiting them... plus a rousing welcome from community members.
How did your group get involved?
Jeanne: In 2021 and again last year, we joined with the local Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Committee (WNYRAC), led by long-time local coordinators Linda Mathews and Christopher Stanley, to assist with refugee resettlement efforts in nearby Buffalo by providing and transporting needed goods.
When Jewish Family Services rechanneled its efforts to focus on an apartment procurement and full set-up effort (rather than a goods-only collection), our Olean group decided to go for it, agreeing to organize and set up a complete apartment for two refugee families.
How did the group get organized?
Rob: Beginning in August, the group collected, organized, packed, and stored over 20 totes and boxes with a wide range of items suggested by Jewish Family Services. These items included small appliances, silverware, dishes, cooking utensils, pots and pans and a wide array of personal hygiene products. Also on the list were bedding and helpful everyday items like batteries, can openers and dozens of other items taken for granted by most Americans when moving into a new apartment — but clearly impossible for a refugee family to carry with them when coming to the United States.
In addition, the group collected, cleaned, and repaired dressers, bed frames, tables, chairs, and other furniture items necessary to furnish a three-bedroom apartment. Additional cash contributions enabled the group to purchase many new items requested by JFS, which also furnished the new mattresses.
How was ‘Move-in Day’ accomplished?
Rob: With a target date of Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, 18 volunteers set out in a caravan for the trip to Buffalo in eight cars, SUVs, vans, and trailers packed with all the materials needed to prepare a comfortable home for the refugee families. In six hours, the team cleaned the apartment, moved in the furniture, made the beds, and stocked the kitchen and bathroom with every item necessary to ease the transition of these families after an arduous journey from the southern border.
Jeanne: A “Welcome Home” sign, in Spanish, was left on the fireplace mantle, signed by the volunteers and members of the Olean Area Charter for Compassion who worked that day to set up the apartment.
The two Honduran families were then able to move into a home with beds, furniture and personal care goods all readied for them and start the process of resettlement into life in the United States the very next day.
Who was involved in the project? Was it only Charter members?
Jeanne: No, many people contributed to this effort, including patrons of the Cuba Circulating Library, members of the Olean YMCA, patrons of the Olean Public Library and members and visitors of the Olean Meditation Center. Cash contributions were made by friends of the Charter for Compassion group, and the local “Home Depot” store donated cleaning supplies, mops, and brooms.
Rob: The people of the Olean area have been generous beyond imagination. When the call for help goes out, our people show their compassion for their fellow human beings with heartfelt contributions of money, goods, and the gift of service. In such efforts, we feel so closely aligned with our Brattleboro sister community. We are both truly Compassionate Communities.
History of the Olean Area Charter for Compassion
Rob and Jeanne: The Olean Area Charter for Compassion was founded in 2017 by seven local individuals who were concerned about stories of inter-family turmoil and community acrimony dividing people in the politically charged environment of the time.
Recognizing that Olean is a compassionate community at its core and citing example after example of concern and care exhibited by people in every facet of community life, we found ourselves searching for a way to unite our community in the cause of compassion. We soon discovered the International Charter for Compassion and shared the ideals of this organization with the others in the group. By the following year, we established the City of Olean as a Compassionate Community and collected over 2,000 signatures supporting this effort.