Celebrating Unsung Heroes
by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — It is one thing to think, “We should help refugees.” It is another thing to actually roll up your sleeves and help the refugees depicted in the news media drowning, suffering and freezing in faraway lands. Some people in our community, though, have rolled up their sleeves.
Erin Aguayo, a 34-year-old mother who lives on Kemp Street in Montpelier, heard news reports about hundreds of thousands of children, women and men leaving behind everything to flee the violence and devastation occurring in their countries. She felt heartsick. She wanted to do more than feel badly about it. She wanted to help in a hands-on way. But how?
She learned of an effort by a dedicated network of activists helping refugees coming out of Turkey, Greece and Jordan get at least two basic needs met: clothing and blankets. “I can’t hop a flight to Greece and pull rafts in, though I would like to,” Aguayo said, explaining she has two small children at home. She learned about a man named Yusuf Demir, board chair of the Turkish Culture Center in Burlington, who has organized a drop-off spot for relief items in Burlington.
Demir, speaking by mobile phone to The Bridge December 11, said his center started organizing cultural and humanitarian activities about five years ago in collaboration with a New Jersey-based organization called Embrace Relief (founded by Turkish Americans). They have been involved in a number of projects, including bringing water wells to Uganda and Kenya, helping tornado victims and helping victims of the Haitian earthquake. Most recently, Demir said, they set up a drive to get coats and blankets to Syrians who arrived in Turkey and are being relocated to colder climes.
“Since we have more than two million registered refugees in Turkey, we know how serious it is,” Demir said. “We decided to collaborate.” He said the Burlington office alone has delivered two truckloads of coats and blankets to a drop off spot in New Jersey that will see to it that the items arrive in the hands of refugees. More items are needed and will be accepted until December 30.
Donations came in from Burlington, Stowe, Morrisville and other places, but Demir said Montpelier gave the most impressive contribution, thanks to Erin Aguayo, her husband, Jose Aguayo and an industrious Montpelier High School senior, Maggie Nowlan, 17.
Nowlan hit the ground running as soon a she heard about it. “I saw the notice on Front Porch Forum and I thought it would be nice to contribute,” Nowlan told The Bridge. Nowlan contacted Erin Aguayo and asked if she could maximize contributions by setting something up at the school. “I went to the principal to get approval,” she said.
Then, with the full support of new principal Mike McRaith and the school staff, she publicized the campaign seeking donations. After that she contacted principals at Main Street Middle School and Union Elementary and did the same. By Friday, December 4, Nowlan had single-handedly rounded up 150 coats and blankets among the three schools. But she couldn’t single-handedly deliver them all. “It was a couple of carloads,” she said. “I started Tuesday (December 1) and ended Friday (December 4). On Friday, Nowlan enlisted the help of fellow students, including Ben Crane, Delaney Goodman, Asa Richardson-Skinderson, Eleanor Braun, and Henry Valentine. Also, Grace Valentine helped at Main Street Middle School. Together they sorted everything, put items in bags, and dropped it all off at the Aguayo residence.
Her efforts took about 10 hours, she said. “The school was really supportive. We have a new principal here, so big props to him … and the staff was really supportive. The credit really goes to the people who brought stuff in, I just set up the boxes,” Nowlan said. “Also, to Erin Aguayo. I wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t (put a notice on Front Porch Forum).”
Erin Aguayo said Nowlan’s efforts really paid off. “She was very motivated, so between us I think we came up with about 260 coats and blankets that are on their way.”
Anyone who would still like to contribute may call Yusuf Demir at 448-0458 or send him an email at email@example.com. Most desperately needed are blankets, coats and boats. Yep. Demir said boats are needed.