A group of 20 Latter-day Saint teens and tweens in San Antonio, Texas, had a profound experience as they furnished apartments for their first two families of Afghan refugees over the weekend.
As the group pulled up to the apartment building last Friday night, furniture and supplies in tow, they met the first family — a mother with seven children whose husband and father was killed in Afghanistan. The family was moving into a one-bedroom apartment with only the clothes on their backs.
After hefting couches, tables, chairs, mattresses and other household items up a flight of stairs, they drove the mother, her children and a translator to Walmart to buy them some warm clothing. They also fulfilled her request for a sewing machine so she could user her seamstress skills to provide for family.
Later the same night, the group did it again, providing a similar service for a family of 10. Both refugee families repeatedly told the young people, “Thank you.”
It was a heart-wrenching scene, but one the teenagers and some of their younger brothers and sisters will never forget, said Tim Bird, who serves as bishop of the Seguin Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Emotionally, we weren’t prepared for it, I think. It was pretty tough. ... But there was a great spirit about the whole thing,” he said. “There’s certain service projects that you do that stick with you for a long time, and this is definitely one of those that is imprinted on their hearts and in their minds.”
Furnishing the two apartments was just the beginning for the Latter-day Saint group. Their goal is to help more than 100 such refugee families going forward as part of the church’s “Light the World With Love” initiative during the Christmas season.
The Stable Project and a homemade ‘giving box’
In early November, the international church announced its annual “Light the World” Christmas initiative with a video that featured a modern Nativity. All the elements of the Nativity — shepherds, angels, the star and more — were portrayed through different acts of modern service.
For a stable, the video showed a refugee family moving into a furnished apartment.
The concept inspired the teens of the Seguin Ward to launch a service project to collect donations and furnish apartments for refugees.
More than 1,000 refugees from various countries settle in the Texas city each year, according to the Center for Refugee Services in San Antonio.
When the church announced 10 locations for its red Giving Machines, vending machines that allow a person to use a credit card to donate to local and global charities, San Antonio wasn’t on the list.
So the group decided to create its own homemade giving machine as a way to collect donations for furnishing the apartments.
“It was an aha moment, lightning in a bottle, if you will,” Bird said.
They bought the materials at a local Home Depot and built their giving machine using power tools, plywood, pegboard, paint and screws. It was assembled at night under flood lights over the course of three or four days. The young men like to refer to it as “the box,” said 16-year-old Jordan Johnson.
“We put our literal blood, sweat and tears into this project,” he said.
The handmade giving machine stands 8 feet high, 4 feet across and 2 feet deep, and moves on wheels. Instead of inserting a credit card into a vending machine, people select a card off a hook from the box. Then they go buy the item or order it online and donate it to the project.
The list includes less expensive items — as clothespins, coat hangers, dishes, utensils, pots and pans — and more costly items such as tables and a queen-size bed.
“They (refugees) have nothing. Came with nothing and are starting from scratch again,” Bird said. “So the project started as gathering household items to help get them situated and set up in an apartment so they can live, survive and sustain themselves until they can get on their feet and get their life started over.”
The group estimates the average size of each refugee family is six people, with two parents and four children. They have compiled a list of 72 essential items to furnish each apartment.
“Think of a plain, empty apartment. We start with the basic necessities,” Bird said. “Oh my goodness, it’s catching wildfire and it’s a wonderful thing. ... It started out as a small project and it’s got some divine intervention that has take us to a couple different levels. It’s been pretty fantastic to see it roll out.”
How the Stable Project has grown
The group has worked on different aspects of the project — building, promoting, collecting — for a month now.
The homemade giving “Box” has been introduced to the community through parades, Rotary Club meetings and online through social media. The unique giving machine was recently placed in the lobby of a local bank and will move to other locations and venues in the coming days.
That’s not all. The youths also advertised the project on two billboards around city.
The Seguin Stable Project has been noticed by people outside Texas. The group has friends in Georgia, Idaho, Nevada and other states, that have learned about the project and donated or offered assistance.
The group has plans to furnish three apartments this week. With a constant stream of packages arriving daily, they have enough supplies to furnish another 15 apartments in the near future.
After helping the first two families, they know how grateful the refugees will be.
“Every time you make eye contact with them, they’re just overjoyed, overcome with emotion,” Bird said. “They are so grateful. They are so thankful for the support and the love. They haven’t really experienced that before, I don’t think.”
‘It makes me happy to help with this project’
Joshua Coleman, 11, contributed to the Stable Project by making thank-you cards for donors. He has loved being a part of the project.
“I like this project because Afghan families come to Texas with nothing. Even though we are giving them small things it makes a big difference in their lives,” he said. “It makes me happy to help with this project.”
Anthony Buchanan, 18, helped build the “box” and plan parts of the project.
“Since we have our own idea for this, it feels a lot more personal with everything we do with the project,” he said. “They had to leave behind their lives to come here and escape situations there. Since they are having such a terrible time, the least we could do is try to give them a smoother transition into life here with a proper home.”
The opportunity to serve the refugees has been “life-changing” for the young people, Bird said.
“Until you get there, move the stuff into the apartment, see the living conditions and hear their stories of where they came from, you know, they are never going to forget it,” the bishop said.
“We have been praying all year for service projects and opportunities to unify our youth and ward, as well as bridges to build in the community. The process, the effort and the love that our youth are putting into this has been life-changing for them.”
How missionaries are helping to ‘Light the World’ in Thailand
The giving spirit of Light the World that inspired the Stable Project’s giving box is encouraging similar efforts around the world.
As part of a recent two-day conference in Bangkok, Thailand, more than 70 Latter-day Saint young elders and sisters, as well as senior missionaries, participated in a “Light the World with Love” activity.
They assembled 4,000 school/hygiene kits for underprivileged children using resources provided by Latter-day Saint Charities.
The missionaries also wrapped 500 stuffed animals and cookie packages for ICare, a group known for their humanitarian efforts throughout the country, and assembled and delivered 150 food bags to some of the temple workers with families who live in the area.