Have you ever felt like you didn’t fit in, especially as a kid? Maybe you moved mid-school year, or your family had less money than your neighbors and your clothes were second hand rather than brand name. Or maybe you were more of a bookworm rather than an athlete. Maybe you had no musical or other artistic talents for the school talent show.

It’s an experience that is awkward, uncomfortable and, depending on how traumatic, can have a lifelong impact on your self-esteem.

Now, imagine that you are a child getting ready to go to school and everything is different. The language is different, the smells are different, the skin color of many of the people around you is different and now, you get to navigate a school system that is different.

Scary, right?!

In one small way, though, we can help refugee children “fit in” — with a backpack that looks like everyone else’s.

Backpack drive

Amy Dott Harmer, the executive director of Utah Refugee Connection, is spearheading a backpack drive for refugee school children. The first year, about a decade ago, the organization gave out a few hundred backpacks. Last year, the nonprofit gave out 5,000 backpacks. This year, with just two weeks to go until backpacks are distributed, she has 100.

This is where we in the community come in. We can help boost that number from 100 to more than 5,000 in the next two weeks. We can spearhead a neighborhood backpack drive, we can fill and donate anywhere from one to many backpacks, we can pick up a dozen boxes of crayons to go in other backpacks, or we can volunteer to be a drop-off location.

To keep things fair, the contents of the backpacks need to be the same. Here’s the list: A new backpack with a one-inch or 1.5-inch three-ring binder, three pens, two wooden pencils and pencil sharpeners, packaged lined paper, glue stick, eraser, spiral notebook, 12-count colored pencils, 24-count crayons, blunt nose scissors and a glue stick. You can take them to the “Sharehouse” located at 3134 S. 300 East, Monday or Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., no later than Aug. 2. Or, you can drop them off at one of the many locations listed on their social media posts.

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Children’s backpacks are being collected as part of a back-to-school drive at the Serve Refugees Sharehouse in South Salt Lake on Thursday, July 13, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Packing a big punch

The Utah Refugee Connection is a small nonprofit that packs a big punch when it comes to helping some of the 65,000 refugees currently living in Utah. Run mostly on volunteer labor and donations, the nonprofit collected and distributed over $1 million in in-kind donations last year.

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In addition to the back-to-school backpacks, they also host holiday parties, help provide new car seats, pack-and-plays, and strollers, as well as menstrual supplies, diapers and wipes and gift cards for gas. They also sponsor refugee cultural nights, when members of the community can come and learn more about the different cultures represented by Utah’s refugee community. Last year, they educated over 1,000 people.

Their goals include helping Utahns learn about, serve and give to local refugees and to help refugees become self-sufficient. For example, if a refugee attends eight hours worth of classes with a partner organization — learning English, for example — they receive a certificate of completion that they then bring to the Sharehouse. There, they can choose a laundry kit or a personal kit with essential supplies. This spring, the Sharehouse was giving out 200 kits per week to refugees working on improving themselves, and now their supplies need to be replenished. It’s a good problem to have.

Harmer told me that Utahns are generous people, but they don’t always know what to do. Filling backpacks is one way to help our neighbors, but if backpacks don’t float your boat, then find an organization that is doing good in an area you care about — homelessness, food insecurity, teaching sewing skills or any number of other possibilities. Call the organization and ask them what they need.

Then, go and do.

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