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News & Events

News & Event

Generous Ideas

Kelly Birkenhauer works full-time as a geologist, has a young son, and spends more than 16 hours a week working to improve the lives of Greater Cincinnati’s refugees. The chair of the Junior League of Cincinnati’s RefugeeConnect Committee said her motivation is that the refugees themselves are nothing short of amazing.

Kelly BirkenhauerKelly Birkenhauer works full-time as a geologist, has a young son, and spends more than 16 hours a week working to improve the lives of Greater Cincinnati’s refugees. The chair of the Junior League of Cincinnati’s (JLC) RefugeeConnect Committee said her motivation is that the refugees themselves are nothing short of amazing.

“A refugee is someone who is persecuted because of their politics or religion, or there was genocide or warfare in their country,” Kelly explained. “It’s really easy to want to work with them because you think, ‘if they can survive all these things, my problems are so trivial.’ They are really inspiring to work with.”

Refugees are forced to leave their countries, flee to refugee camps where they can spend years, and then move to a country where they don’t know the language or the culture.

There are 11,000 refugees living in Greater Cincinnati and include the Chin people of Burma/Myanmar, the Burundians of Africa, and the Bhutanese of Asia. “One of the Burundian families shared a story that had us all in tears,” Kelly said. “Their daughters grew up in hiding.”

Refugees usually receive help from resettlement agencies for three months and then they are on their own. The JLC has been working on RefugeeConnect for three years with the goal of making the lives of refugees easier, promoting community acceptance, and building a support system. A piece of this is providing accessible English classes to help the refugees adapt to the culture and be able to secure employment.

The English class segment received more than $10,000 in prize money as part of GCF’s Big Idea Challenge last year. The Big Idea Challenge was created to celebrate the Foundation’s 50th Anniversary and asked citizens to submit ideas that would make the community better.

English classes are just the beginning of what Kelly and the JLC are working on. The long-term plan is to best serve this part of the community by connecting all of the many agencies and volunteers that serve the refugee population.

“How could you not want to help?” asked Kelly.

This story appeared in GCF's 2013 Annual Report.