Treasure Valley group goes above and beyond to help refugee families

A grass-roots group known as ELF brings Christmas, as well as many necessities, to Idahoans in need

awebb@idahostatesman.comNovember 27, 2013 

  • HOW YOU CAN HELP

    Link to the ELF website at IdahoStatesman.com for information about families that need your help, and find links to other giving opportunities through the Women's and Children's Alliance, the Assistance League of Boise and Boise Bicycle Project, among others.

Lots of groups and individual donors help refugees each holiday season through the Agency for New Americans.

But the Eternal League of Friends, in addition to having a cool acronym, takes on a special challenge, said Yasmin Aguilar, the agency's community resource coordinator.

For eight years, ELF has "adopted" families at Christmas and given them everyday items, special gifts, food, music and visits with Santa.

The group is helping more than 20 families this year.

"We are an eclectic group of friends from different backgrounds," said Eagle stay-at-home mom Lonni Leavitt-Barker, one of the group's founders.

The diverse group shared a common desire to help their children gain a sense of Christmas as a time of giving, not receiving, she said.

Leavitt-Baker said she and her friends "fell in love" with the Agency for New Americans after attending a fundraiser. The agency, along with World Relief and the International Rescue Committee, resettles refugees in Idaho.

That first year, Leavitt-Baker and a few others each committed to providing holiday gifts for one family through the agency. ELF was born.

"It was a little chaotic. We were rounding up interpreters, trying to meet with families and find times to bring gifts to their apartments," she said.

She and her children took presents to the home of a single mother from Congo. The woman had children about the same age as Leavitt-Baker's.

"None of us spoke the same language, but my children were immediately down on the floor with hers, playing with the new toys," she said.

While the kids had fun, the visit also was a chance for them to see a more modest household than their own - one where simple things, such as a basket of groceries or a cooking pot, make a significant difference.

The experience made everyone want to give gifts again the next year, and ELF grew. More of the founders' friends and family members joined, and the group helped more families each holiday season.

ELF PARTY AT BORAH

As the ELF project has evolved, so has its delivery mode. When taking gifts to families' homes became too hard to wrangle, ELF began hosting a holiday gift party for refugees. In 2012, the party was in the gym at Riverstone School and was attended by 24 families - around 100 people. Organizers had to figure out how to get 50 donated bikes back to refugees' apartments after the festivities.

ELF is holding its 2013 party from noon to 2 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Borah High School cafeteria in Boise. The members network to get food donations and goody bags for guests. The party will include live entertainment and crafts, and ELF pays to hire interpreters so volunteers can have conversations with the families they're helping.

The group's website offers brief introductions to the families ELF has on its list this year. Several families still need sponsors.

COMMUNITY CONNECTION

Aguilar, from the Agency for New Americans, says ELF's work helps ensure that refugees get things they need. The holiday project also helps newly arrived people forge relationships with the community and become familiar with American culture, traditions and societal norms.

"The volunteers are generous, spending their money, energy and time, and helping educate the community about refugees," said Aguilar.

The agency typically works to resettle about 60 families at any given time.

Though Christmas is ELF's most active time, the volunteers' generosity isn't limited to December.

"We are in touch during the year. If I have a situation, a newly arrived family that needs something, I can call ELF," said Aguilar.

And, she said, the ever-larger group always seems to come through.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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