Story by Katherine Riley, Volunteer, Chicago, IL
While my fellow classmates were stressing their way through their final AP tests, I spent my morning in a church auditorium with refugee women from around the globe.
During my last few weeks in May as a high school senior, I decided to spend my four week High School Senior Project volunteering at the American Red Cross in Chicago. After three weeks in Fund Development and Blood Services, my last week was spent with Service to the Armed Forces and International Services (specifically working with the Restoring Family Links program). I was growing sentimental that my time at the Red Cross was coming to a close; however, if it had to be my last week, I was thrilled that it was Women’s Health Week.
National Women’s Health Week (NWHW) is an observance led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on women’s health. The goal is to empower women to make their health a priority, and understand what steps they can take to improve it.
Each year in Chicago, a committee of refugee-serving organizations, including the Red Cross, plan a weeklong event during NWHW to promote a healthy lifestyle to refugee women and provide relevant educational information with useful skills and tools to make this ‘call to action’ a reality. With so many great organizations working in full force together, I was awestruck and honored to be a part of it.
As an eighteen year old girl from the suburbs of Chicago, a healthy lifestyle to me is exercising, eating carrots, and rationing my cupcake intake. However, when I arrived at the event I was blown away by the thoughtful agenda. These women were not just learning about preservatives and treadmills, but about domestic violence and family planning. The wonderful people who put on the event wanted to give these women important information that they may not have received in their past, and might not have received in their future otherwise. This also included activities demonstrating creative ways to deal with the stress of being a refugee (i.e. yoga, dance therapy, art therapy, and Zumba).
On my first day at the event, I was anxiously unfolding chairs until 10am when the women began filing in. The initial excitement was so beautiful to me. The little church auditorium filled with women and voices from all over the world. Many were wearing traditional garments, and most were corralling all the small children into the play room. A few women came up to me to simply introduce themselves and practice their English. Yet, even if they could not speak English (and the many translators stood as proof that many were just learning) they all showed their appreciation for the event in their own way.
I was astounded by the number of people and their excitement to learn. Many of the refugee women came every single day. While we all came from different places, we all laughed during yoga, played peek-a-boo with the children, and gave thoughtful responses to the daily quiz. I can’t remember a time when I have been in the vicinity of such a worldly diverse group of women with whom I felt such a connection. My experience made me excited to begin my life as an adult and meet new people from around the world. It also made me excited to continue supporting the amazing work of American Red Cross. I know that I will be involved in this organization in one way or another for the rest of my life.