Compassion Fayetteville Helping Hands

Publication: Northwest Arkansas Times; Date: Jan 4, 2014; Section: Religion; Page: 9  

Sharing The Load



This school year, 1,287 international students are working toward college degrees at the University of Arkansas. They are a diverse group, representing 160 countries.
 “Coming from a different country, I know what international students are feeling,” said Yassamin Mirdamadi. “I was one of them.”
 Mirdamadi came to the United States 37 years ago from Iran to earn a doctoral degree at the University of Arkansas. The political situation in her country changed, so the family stayed in Fayetteville. Today, Mirdamadi serves as the UA director of testing for international students.
And she dreams of building a support network for international students who come to study at the University of Arkansas. She currently works out of her garage, collecting household items to share with them.
 Mirdamadi spoke before Christmas at a Conversation Cafe sponsored by Compassion Fayetteville at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fayetteville.
 Students have to show proof that they can afford to pay their $30,000-a-year tuition before they are granted a visa, Mirdamadi explained. But most arrive only with a suitcase full of clothes and books, she said, and their visas allow them to arrive only 30 days before their school session starts. The students have only this time to secure housing and set up a household.
 “They are as lost as you can imagine,” she said. “They don’t know how to get from once place to another in Fayetteville. Then they find the UA bus system. But do they have to go to Walmart to buy everything? And just how many bags can you carry on the bus at one time?
 “They have no access to their usual support system. (Most students still lived with their parents in their home countries.) They are thrown into the ocean as tiny little fish, and they do not even know how to swim. They are book-smart and can read English, but their conversation skills are not good.”
 The international students add to the community and contribute $2 billion dollars a year to the local economy, Mirdamadi said.
The mission statement of Compassion Fayetteville reads, “Our mission is to advocate compassion in our community to enhance the quality of life for all.”
“We want people to ‘treat others like you would like to be treated yourself,’” Karen Armstrong, a retired nun and the force behind the worldwide Charter for Compassion, which is based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect, said in a video.
The Charter for Compassion she introduced is “a cooperative effort to restore compassionate thinking and action to the center of life,” reads a website devoted to the charter. “The document transcends religious, ideological and national differences.”
“What does compassion ask of your city, town or village?” the website continues. “What would it look like for schools, businesses, hospitals and religious communities to embody the Golden Rule?”
The organizers of Compassion Fayetteville — which grew out
an initiative of the Fayetteville Forward Economic Accountability Council’s inclusion group — hope to earn designation as a Compassionate City by the Compassionate Action Network International. Only 23 cities worldwide hold the title, but 180 others — including Fayetteville — are working that way, said the Rev. Dian Williams, one of the organizers of the group.
“We’re working to become a compassionate city … Well, we already are a compassionate city, but we are trying to become more so,” she said.
“We can be activists in compassion as some people are activists in hatred,” said Armstrong in the video.
Members of the compassion groups around the world are diverse, with many religions, ideologies and cultures represented. In Fayetteville, the leaders focus on the values of connecting, awareness, respect, empathy and service.
“I wish that you would help with the creation, launch and propagation of a Charter for Compassion, based on the fundamental principles of universal justice and respect,” Armstrong said.
 Five other community volunteers introduced their programs at the November meeting. Most shared similar stories — but none stayed inside the five-minute guideline suggested because of their passion for their work. After their presentations, these leaders and other participants gathered at “café” tables for closer looks at the organizations.
Don Bennett of Tri-Cycle Farms spoke of the community gardening project he started with a friend to feed themselves. The program grew to support other families, and two years later, also supports many agencies in Fayetteville by supplying fresh produce.
“We have 28,000 people in Washington County with food insecurity — one in four children,” he said. “We are the No. 1 state with food insecurity.”
 Kristina Andaloza shared the path she took to lead her to her “dream job” at the front desk of the Seven Hills Homeless Shelter in Fayetteville. When she initially went to apply, the position had been filled, but shelter staff led her to a support agency. Today, the former client pays back by working as a case manager with this agency, meeting every week with clients living in poverty.
“These clients are my brothers and sisters,” she said. “I know how hard it can be to feel like you’re lost and alone. I try to make every day at work the best they’ve ever had. I put a smile on my face and offer supportive ideas.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t found help. Seven Hills is a great organization.”
“It’s great to see someone go from a receiver to a giver,” said David Williams, the café moderator and retired president and chief executive officer of Ozark Guidance.
 Grace Depper, the Benton County volunteer coordinator for Faith in Action, spoke about her agency, which seeks to support senior citizens older than 60 who no longer can drive.
“They have to depend on others to go grocery shopping, to go to doctors’ appointments,” she said. “They have no support system outside of themselves. They rely on their neighbors, but their neighbors are as old as they are. These are the people living between completely independent and assisted living.”
Faith in Action off ers 110 residents 4,000 services a year with 80 volunteers and total community funding. Services might include yard work, birthday cards or holiday gift baskets.
 “You can really be there for individuals — who have a great stories to tell,” Depper said. “And the gift they give back to you cannot be measured.”
 Liz Finan shared “the blessing of being able to volunteer for this great organization: Circle of Life Hospice.”
She told the story of a family with a 5-month-old child who was severely disabled and had undergone many, many procedures. Now, the latest would leave him permanently on a ventilator at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock.
 “They brought him home and put him under Hospice care,” Finan said. “And when all that stopped, the mother started to see the child as a child and fell in love.”
 At a debriefing on the case, Finan and eight other volunteers who worked with the family noted how that child had touched their lives. She felt honored and as if she was the one who received the gift of compassion.
“… and a little child will lead them (Isaiah 11:6),” David Williams said. “As you give, so can you receive (Luke 6:38).”
Dawn Jones introduced the food pantry program at Washington Square apartments, a HUD-subsidized facility serving about 100 households.
“We are a low-income, multiple-generation, multifamily apartment complex,” she said. “We have (Hurricane) Katrina survivors, assisted living, single moms, some awesome kids, disabled, elderly — we are a cross-section of society.
 “We all share the challenges of the poor. We pulled it together and found out just how rich we were. We have a lot of talents, which we’ve joined to try to share and manage the facility.”
Bread of Life Ministry of First United Methodist Church in Springdale supplied USDA commodity food products, which were stored in one closet at the complex. Now, many other groups support the pantry, and an entire apartment unit has been turned over to the residents’ council for weekly distribution of food, dry goods, household products, new clothes, fresh produce, books “and equal amounts of laughter, genuine listening and lots of hugs,” Jones said.
The work, trust and moral support of those pantry organizers — and other volunteers, including children — proves one good deed deserves another. And residents volunteer in the pantry to “earn and return” the kindness of others seen through pantry donations, Jones said.
A young woman walked barefoot to the apartments one day. She was pregnant, with a baby on her hip. She had left an abusive husband. Complex management found her an apartment unit that same day, and food bank volunteers gathered household goods and food.
“Well, we were between deliveries and didn’t have much on our shelves,” Jones explained. “But one woman — who was known as a bitter and selfish neighbor — shared her food-bank items with the new resident. And everyone in line behind her did the same!
“There are no small gifts,” Jones concluded. “Compassion is at home.” 
STAFF PHOTOS MICHAEL WOODS Dawn Jones, left, and Mona Robinson, volunteers, work Friday to shelve donated items at the food pantry at the Washington Plaza apartment complex in Fayetteville. Resident volunteers help operate the pantry out of a two-bedroom apartment in the complex. Several different community organizations, churches and businesses contribute to the pantry on a regular basis. 

Jones, vice president of the Washington Plaza governing board and a member of the residents council, folds blankets in the pantry, which offers a weekly distribution of food, dry goods, household products, new clothes, fresh produce, books and moral support to the residents living in the HUD-supported, low-income apartments. 

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