SALT LAKE CITY — No sooner had the Relief Society general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged LDS women worldwide to serve refugees, phones starting ringing off the hook at local nonprofit agencies that assist refugees.
"It was pretty much to the minute," Catherine Barnhart, executive director of the English Skills Learning Center, said Friday.
The center provides English instruction and offers other classes to help refugees and immigrants succeed in their new lives in the United States by obtaining citizenship, learning financial management skills or parenting techniques. Most of the classes are taught by trained volunteers.
The nonprofit agencies that help resettle some 1,200 refugees that come to Utah each year reported similar levels of interest.
"We've received a ton of inquiries into the work we do, for volunteers and how people can get involved. That's been great. However, it does max the capacity to respond as quickly as we'd like to," said Natalie El-Deiry, deputy director of development and strategic initiatives for the Salt Lake office of the refugee resettlement nonprofit organization International Rescue Committee,
"While the interest has been great, we do need people to be patient while we go through the proper volunteer channels," she said.
From conducting collection drives to becoming foster parents of unaccompanied refugee children, there is a wide array of ways people can help. The simplest way to help is to provide financial support to nonprofit agencies that help refugees, officials say.
Most agencies also need in-kind contributions, which can range from home furnishings, to clothing and school supplies. Collection drives can be a great help and can involve large numbers of people, said Danielle Stamos, spokeswoman for Catholic Community Services of Utah, the other major refugee resettlement agency in Utah.
Both Catholic Community Services and the International Rescue Committee have donation information on their websites.
People who want to work directly with refugees will need to undergo training and background checks. Some nonprofit agencies require volunteers to commit to serving refugees for extended periods so clients experience consistency and learn to trust volunteers.
"One of the things that we feel really strongly about is that it's more than a volunteer opportunity, it's a personal relationship," said Barnhart.
For example, the English Skills Learning Center asks volunteers to commit to at least six months of service.
"Part of that is, we don't want people popping into these people's lives and then disappearing because they don't need that. They need a relationship and they need someone who they grow to trust and rely on," Barnhart said.
For someone interested in making a deeper commitment, Catholic Community Services needs foster parents for unaccompanied youth in its foster care program, Stamos said.
The program currently has 100 children in its care, youths who entered the United States without their parents or adults to care for them. The programs serves minors who are refugees, asylees, Cuban/Haitian entrants, special immigrant juveniles and victims of human trafficking.
Prospective foster parents undergo extensive background checks and home visits. Minors can remain in the program until they are reunited with their families or until they are age 21.
To help familiarize Utahns with the many organization and government agencies that serve refugees and their needs for volunteer assistance, the state Utah Refugee Services Office will host a volunteer fair from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m Saturday, April 16, at the Utah Refugee Education and Training Center, 250 W. 3900 South. The center is located on Salt Lake Community College's Meadowbrook Campus.
"We also will do a short introduction and a bit of training around volunteers about who they (refugees) are and some of their needs," said Asha Parekh, director of the Utah Refugee Services Office within the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
Parekh said the state office and United Way of Salt Lake's Utah 2-1-1 service had likewise received an influx of telephone calls and emails from people who are interested in helping refugees locally after last weekend's call to service from Sister Linda K. Burton.
During the General Women's Session of the LDS Church's general conference on March 26, Sister Burton encouraged LDS women across the globe to serve refugees who live in their neighborhoods and communities.
Refugees have been resettled in Utah since the end of the Vietnam War and total about 50,000 people. The vast majority of refugees live in Salt Lake County, although a few hundred live in northern Utah.
"We're very excited by all the interest and attention because we know it will help us make Utah a more welcoming space for refugees. That really supports the integration process in a way that’s phenomenol," Parekh said.
Stamos said personal connections are perhaps most important but creating those relationships takes effort, both in respecting refugees' vulnerabilities and life experiences and taking the time to help them learn about their new communities and the nuances of interacting with government, schools and health care providers.
"The most important thing a person can do to help is to be a friend to a refugee," Stamos said.
"If they feel welcomed and loved, it can make all the difference in the world."