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St. Mary Menomonee Falls students fill backpacks to help refugee children

Angie McLaughlin (left) and Jacob Bruns read opening statements during a blessing Friday for 87 backpacks created from supplies collected by St. Mary Grade School students for donation to children in the Catholic Charities’ Integration program. The collection was part of the school’s activities for Catholic Schools Week.

Angie McLaughlin (left) and Jacob Bruns read opening statements during a blessing Friday for 87 backpacks created from supplies collected by St. Mary Grade School students for donation to children in the Catholic Charities’ Integration program. The collection was part of the school’s activities for Catholic Schools Week. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Feb. 5, 2014

Menomonee Falls — With notebooks, writing utensils and other essential school supplies at their sides, students at St. Mary Parish School in Menomonee Falls recently filled nearly 100 backpacks that will benefit refugee children.

The entire student body — from 3-year-old kindergarten to eighth grade — took part in the collection drive, Principal Linda Joyner said. This year, 337 students attend St. Mary.

Students presented the 87 filled backpacks at a special school assembly last week at the adjacent church. The donated materials were given to the Southeastern Wisconsin chapter of Catholic Charities, an organization aimed at assisting people in need regardless of his or her religious affiliation.

St. Mary students' efforts coincided with Catholic Schools Week, which was held across the country from Jan. 26 to Feb. 1.

Annual service project

Joyner said St. Mary has traditionally held some form of service project during Catholic Schools Week. In the past, students have lent their support behind a number of philanthropic efforts, including food pantries.

"The students really had fun putting together the backpacks," Joyner said. "They wanted to give the (refugee students) something special, and they decided to include a stuffed animal in each backpack."

While a supply drive and donated funds helped see this year's service project through, Joyner said a corporate partnership with Menards was exceptionally beneficial. Germantown and West Bend locations sold backpacks to St. Mary at "extremely discounted" prices, Joyner said.

From start to finish, Joyner said this year's backpack effort took place in about a two-week span of time.

"There's been a lot of excitement throughout this school," she said.

During last week's special assembly, St. Mary students were given an opportunity to learn how their efforts will benefit recipients.

Natasha Torbica, refugee integration coordinator with Catholic Charities, spoke of her own personal experiences. A native of Yugoslavia, Torbica came to the U.S. in December 1998.

Having recently reached her own 15-year milestone as an immigrant into the U.S., Torbica shared with St. Mary students many of the struggles refugees face as they try and leave their native countries because of human rights concerns.

Overcoming the unknown

"Many refugees are stuck in camps for a very long time," Torbica said. "They suffer depression, hopelessness, fear of the unknown, helplessness, powerlessness, a struggle to meet survival needs and anger."

In Milwaukee, Catholic Charities is one of four so-called resettlement agencies that work with refugees coming into the U.S. The agencies help refugees with some of their most basic needs, including job assistance, housing, health care and classes to assist in learning English.

Sharon Brumer, communications manager with Catholic Charities, said the agency has been providing refugee services since 1976. At the moment, Brumer said the agency is working with refugee families arriving from Myanmar (also known as Burma), Somalia and Iraq.

While giving backpacks will not solve all of the problems refugee youth might face, Torbica lauded St. Mary students for their outpouring of support.

"The collection of these backpacks is a great way to show that you care and that you want to help and support," Torbica said. "It's a wonderful way to welcome refugee children and continue our country's humanitarian mission of welcoming newcomers."

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