Thanks to Simpson Seniors, Group gets help in Aiding Burmese Refugees

They began the semester just hoping to successfully complete their senior capstone project.

But for a group of 14 Simpson College students, the project turned into a passion with an important, practical goal: helping Burmese refugees resettle in Des Moines.

In doing so, the students reinforced Simpson’s tradition of serving others. The volunteers who work with Burmese refugees in Des Moines said the students’ effort would help people for many years.

“The work of students here at Simpson will shine through whatever we do in the future,” said Vinh Nguyen of Neighbors Helping Neighbors.

The group of volunteers came together in August last year to match local host families with Burmese families, many of whom live in desperate conditions. Currently, 20 host families in the Des Moines area assist 10 Burmese families, helping provide them with basic needs and acting as a resource.

Jane Murphy, instructor of communication and media studies, assigned her capstone students the task of assisting Neighbors Helping Neighbors after reading a feature story about the organization in The Des Moines Register.

The 14 students were separated into three teams. Their job was to put together a public relations plan for Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Volunteers from the group would hear presentations from the students, then choose a winning entry.

The presentations, held recently, represented much more than an academic exercise. The relatively new group has limited funds and needs all the help the students could provide.

“Do you know how much it would cost us to do work like this?” asked Todd Jacobus, a volunteer. “This is awesome.”

As the semester began, the three student teams went to work. They conducted research. They interviewed host families as well as refugees. They set objectives for expanding the program and developed ideas for how the volunteers could achieve those goals.

“This is the most I’ve ever gotten into a school project,” Tyler Crandell said. “I really didn’t know anything about the refugee program or the situation that Des Moines had. This opened my eyes.”

Here are a few of the facts the students learned:

*The Burmese are governed by a military junta. It is the poorest country in Southeast Asia.

*There are 16,000 officially recognized refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma border.

*Fifteen percent of Burmese children are malnourished, 12 percent of the population is inflected with malaria and one in five children die before the age of four.

Those Burmese families who are fortunate enough to resettle in Iowa often face severe language barriers and financial hardships.

The first Simpson team to present their recommendations – Billy Weathers, Madison Boswell, Renee Castenson, Chelsie Rohrs and David Adams – spelled out the adjustment difficulties in their report.

“They often arrive in the U.S. with no money, clothing, food or place to live,” the team reported. “The biggest challenge, however, is the language barrier.”

The students also discovered there’s a great need for more host families.

“We weren’t aware of the large numbers that are in Des Moines and in Burma, too,” Rohrs said. “Anything that we could do to help would be great. We’ve put our whole semester into this.”

The Simpson teams produced marketing plans that included everything from new logos to website designs. They proposed ideas for raising money, increasing the group’s public profile and working with other churches and charities.

The second team – Chelsea Winegard, Tyler Craig, David Talley, Charlie Sandvick and Adam Walker – suggested that Neighbors Helping Neighbors work with Simpson to hire a student intern, among many other recommendations.

“It’s really neat to think they might take what we did, implement it and hopefully be successful,” Craig said.

The third group – Sarah Stout, April Sigmund, Tyler Crandell and Alejandro Caballero – caught the group’s imagination with their proposed logo and with a volunteer handbook the students produced that is ready to be used immediately.

“To see that almost makes me cry, because that is valuable information right there,” said Cara Kennedy-Ode, one of the Neighbors Helping Neighbors volunteers. “That is very important information that is really needed right now.”

That student team’s report included photos that Stout had taken in Burma during a Study Abroad semester in Thailand.

“When I found out this was going to be our project, I got really excited,” she said.

In the end, her team – called Team Avizify – won the competition, but the three volunteers representing Neighbors Helping Neighbors praised all of the students and said they will use information contained in all three PR plans.

“I am very thankful to see these students so passionate,” said Vinh Nguyen, himself a former refugee to Iowa from Vietnam.

That was no act, the students said.

“I think when you see how serious the problem is, and knowing we have the ability to make a difference, you get excited,” said April Sigmund. “We really wanted to help them.”

Murphy, the instructor, said she was impressed with her students’ commitment.

“They felt compelled by more than just their grades or building their resumes,” she said. “They want their ideas to help the Burmese, not just the organization. I’m really proud of how they embraced this.”