They’re such a lovely family. You couldn’t ask for better people to do that for. They so appreciated it. It made it easy to do things like that for people who are so giving themselves. – Lori Jensen

SALT LAKE CITY— At first, the concept of a “home makeover” didn’t resonate with Burmese refugees Ler Wah and his wife, Day Day.

The couple’s brick house in Poplar Grove, where they have lived since 2010, is a world away from the flimsy bamboo dwellings where they lived in refugee camps in Thailand.

“What more could we need?” Wah said.

Like most homeowners, the couple planned to upgrade their house, some day.

Thanks to the generosity and service of a Draper LDS Church ward, partnering with the nonprofit Utah Refugee Center, those improvements were realized much sooner than Wah and Day had imagined possible.

The Corner Canyon 6th Ward has long observed a tradition of performing service projects during the month of November, says ward member Lori Jensen.

This year, the ward approached the Utah Refugee Center to learn about wants and needs among the estimated 50,000 refugees who have been resettled in Salt Lake County since the end of the Vietnam War.

The idea of helping a refugee family was an outgrowth of 16-year-old ward member Jack Jensen’s experiences volunteering with Break-Thru Soccer, a soccer club for refugee and other youths who have had tough starts in life.

Deb Coffey, executive director of the refugee center, encouraged the ward members to seek out families that have good mastery of English, are employed and “have been able to get themselves in a situation where they could own a home.”

She offered the names of a handful of families, and the ward selected Wah, Day and their daughters, ages 6 and 15 months.

They were a terrific choice, Coffey said.

“These guys have worked really hard to do all of the things that we really want refugees to be able to do,” she said.

Wah was 11 years old when he was separated from most of his family after a Burmese soldier invaded his village. He fled to Thailand with his older brother and sister and ended up in a refugee camp. He spent nearly 10 years there and he has not seen his parents or other siblings since.

Day fled to Thailand in 2002 with her sister. She met Wah when she was offering basic medical training in his camp. The pair married while in Thailand and were resettled in Utah in 2008. Day is a stay-at-home mom, but formerly worked as a case worker for the Asian Association of Utah assisting refugees from Burma.

Wah is a community resource specialist in the state Refugee Services Office in the Utah Department of Workforce Services. He provides intensive support to refugees in the Karen community, working to strengthen families,” said office director Gerald Brown. The Karen people are an ethnic group that lives in southeast Asia near the border of Thailand and Myanmar.

“He’s one of the best refugee leaders, regardless of community, that we have in Utah,” Brown said.

Support for the idea was immediate and overwhelming, said Lori Jensen, who oversaw the project.

“As soon as I said a few sentences about this family, they said, 'I’m in. I’m on board,'" she said. “They loved the idea of helping someone who has worked so hard.”

The ward’s youth and their adult leaders — 60 teens and 25 adults — set about upgrading every room in the house.

That meant fresh paint, flooring and some personal touches such as the framed photographs of the family placed throughout the house. The family portraits were taken while the family was living out of their home during the renovations.

The house also has new furniture, appliances and housewares such as sheets, towels and dishes. All of the new furnishings and labor were donated by members of the ward and “generous community partners and businesses,” Coffey said.

The front yard was also spruced up with new landscaping.

Earlier this month, the makeover was revealed to Wah, Day and their children.

“I’m like, ‘It’s just a dream, right?'” Wah said.

“Is this really my house? Am I really going to be living in this house?”

Day, meanwhile, could not contain her emotion.

The family lived out of the house part of the time that upgrades were underway, which was only the second time Day had stayed in a hotel. She told Wah that she hoped someday to live in a house as grand as the hotel.

That day came sooner than she expected.

“Being a refugee, your life is very poor. It really touched her and she couldn’t control her emotions. Last night she kept calling her mother and sister and cousin and telling our story, laughing and crying,” Wah said.

Lori Jensen said turning over the upgraded house to Wah and Day was emotional for the ward members as well.

“They’re such a lovely family. You couldn’t ask for better people to do that for. They so appreciated it. It made it easy to do things like that for people who are so giving themselves,” she said.

Brown said Wah’s full-time job is assisting refugees. “Every Saturday, he’s doing something with his community to try to help the youth and the older people or the Karen community organization's board. He’s just very committed,” Brown said.

A day after moving back into his home, Wah said he was still overwhelmed by the group’s gift of service and the lovely improvements to his family’s home.

“It’s amazing. I really appreciate everyone who helped us on the job and got it done. I just don’t know how to pay them back.”

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com