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Warm Clothing Drive

12/15/08 5:55PM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) All this week, during All Things Considered, we'll be hearing from VPR commentators about some of the ways in which we help each other make it through the holidays, through trying economic times, and through the hard months of winter.  After working with his students to collect warm clothing for the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, commentator Mike Martin has a new-found respect for this generation's community spirit and generosity.

(MARTIN) You often hear that kids today only care about video games and cell phones, but after working on a community project at the school where I teach, I'm pretty sure that's not true.

Many of the high school students I know are seriously interested in what is now called "service learning," and many of them spend their vacations volunteering for Ronald McDonald House or Habitat for Humanity. Just the same, when the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program asked our school for help with their Warm Clothing Drive last month, I was still surprised by the students' overwhelming response.

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, or VRRP, is a field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, and its staff helps new immigrants learn English, adapt to American culture, find jobs, and integrate into their new communities here in Vermont. Many of the families are coming from extremely difficult situations, and many are still healing from traumatic experiences in their home countries. Some are fleeing wars or state-sponsored persecution, but some are also victims of "warehousing," the term humanitarian groups use to describe long-term residency in squalid, violent refugee camps that are dead-ends for those unfortunate enough to fall into them.

Once these immigrants arrive in Vermont, the VRRP helps them by providing family counseling, financial advice, translation services, and connections with their new neighbors. And since some of the families have never even seen snow in their native land, the VRRP also collects coats, hats, boots, and gloves to help them during the long Vermont winter.

When we decided to help out by collecting warm clothing donations at my school, I figured we'd do okay; but If you've ever tried to collect a homework assignment or a permission slip from a teenager, you know that it can sometimes take several days, or even weeks, to get what you need. So imagine my surprise when students immediately organized into teams, got the word out, and started lugging in armfuls of parkas and sweaters. Every day for a week, the bags of warm clothing piled up higher and higher, until the donations filled a small room.

Obviously, this huge outpouring proved that our kids can be civic-minded and generous, and it also showed that they're a tolerant generation.

Because, even though nearly all Americans are from immigrant families, just from different eras, it seems that we forget this every once in a while. In recent years, Americans have seemed more fearful. Instead of welcoming the "huddled masses" in the finest American tradition, the immigration debate has often sounded mean-spirited - even bigoted, sometimes - and for the first time, we've been building walls along our borders.

So when my students all volunteered at once to help out new immigrants from Nepal, Iraq, Congo, and Somalia, it made me feel hopeful. And if young Vermonters learn where Bhutan is, or discover new cultures as they practice some gracious Yankee hospitality - well, that wouldn't be a bad thing either.
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