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Volunteer Spotlight: Mary Kathryn van Eerden

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The IRC in Richmond is privileged to have the support of multi-faith communities throughout the greater Richmond community. Besides the dedication from local mosques, temples and churches, individuals of faith find themselves called to volunteer. One very special volunteer shares her experience of helping a young man resettling in Richmond to achieve self-sufficiency and a brighter future.

By Mary Kathryn van Eerden

When the Syrian refugee crisis hit the news, my husband Brian and I were heartbroken. As a mother, looking through my computer screen into the eyes of frightened and determined mothers clinging to their children as they walked for miles - leaving their homes and everything behind - I felt a heartbreak. I imagined how desperate I would feel if I was in their shoes. We were moved to somehow be a part of helping these families. We asked ourselves, "Where do people go when all the people they would turn to for help are running beside them?" We prayed for God's grace and mercy to rain down on these innocent victims of a raging war. We prayed about how we could help from Richmond, Virginia.

Through our church we learned about refugee resettlement organizations in Richmond and we found our way to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Immediately we were filled in on the status of refugees entering the Richmond area and what we could do to help. What they needed were people with a driver’s license and a car who could help new arrivals make it to doctor appointments. Easy enough! As I had one weekday off each week and could then be available for doctor-office hours, I jumped in.  

Dieudonne and Mary Kathryn in Richmond together. Photo: Mary Kathryn van Eerden

My first assignment was to give a young man from the Congo a ride to a medical appointment. This was the beginning of a new friendship that has blessed our family. Dieudonne Nzeyimana arrived from the Congo in October 2017 along with three younger siblings. The siblings were placed in a wonderful foster care home and Dieudonne, being 18 years old and considered an adult, was placed in an apartment with another refugee and went to work full-time supporting himself within months.

At a regular medical screening, the doctor found an undiscovered birth defect. In America, such a defect would be identified and repaired with a simple procedure by the time a patient is a year old. Dieudonne had made it to age 19 without the problem being detected. With the simple act of making my  car, driver's license and schedule available, I had the privilege of helping Dieudonne see the doctors he needed. With the support of IRC Health Liaison Laxman Chamlagai and my family, I have walked beside Dieudonne as he received diagnoses and then a repair procedure at the University of Virginia Medical Center. With the care of amazing doctors and their staff and his determination to be well, he's healthy and now able to focus on his goal of learning English and completing his GED.

So many prayers were answered when we asked God how we could help. We did not know the answer would be so simple – drive a refugee where they need to go and give them our time. For me, this experience has been rewarding beyond my expectations. For our new friend, it has changed the trajectory of his life. What an absolute privilege to have played a role in giving him a healthier path.

If you are interested in becoming an IRC volunteer in Richmond, please send an email to VolunteerRichmond [at] rescue.org.