Seven volunteers wound single-file, hauling cardboard boxes of food and clothing, jugs of cooking oil and a laundry basket full of toiletries like a living cargo train. They made their way to a unit on the third floor of an apartment complex on the west side of Salt Lake City.
When they were invited in, the group met three little girls: 10-year-old Sepheni, 7-year-old Fide and 1-year-old Christo. The girls sat on two red armchairs, transfixed, as the cargo train filed in, depositing the gifts in the living room.
“It’s kinda scary, all these people that you don’t know,” volunteer David Baugh offered, laughing.
The girls are part of a family of eight who came to the United States four years ago from Tanzania. They’ve been in this apartment for about three years now, Sepheni says. Their eldest brother, Christopher, is a senior at West High School, who is due to graduate despite having very little schooling before his family came to this country, boasted Valeria Gates, a volunteer and the English Language Learning department head at West High.
In addition to the bigger items, the group had gift cards for Christopher and his brother, Siri Yamogu. After telling the girls to give her brothers the cards — the boys were sleeping in — the job was done. Baugh, donning a red Santa hat, said goodbye: “Well, you guys have a very Merry Christmas, OK?”
“You, too,” Sepheni said. And just like that, the cargo train moved on.
Despite coming on Christmas, the gifts they brought had less to do with the holiday than reminding these families (and homebound seniors who also receive donations) that they’re welcome and others are thinking of them, Gates said. Many of the refugee families the donations are delivered to don’t even celebrate Christmas, she noted.
It’s also a way for the volunteers to meet people they might otherwise not have the chance to.
“These are families who are refugees, so they certainly have needs for food and for clothing and household goods and things like that," Gates said, “But a lot of it is making this connection [between people].”
This annual service project is coordinated by the Utah chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women and it is called Shalom Salaam Tikkun Olam. It’s a combined effort by the local Jewish and Muslim communities. The gifts for more than 1,000 seniors and refugees in the Salt Lake-area come together in a mad dash on Christmas Eve and are delivered Christmas morning.
The nexus of this project is the West High cafeteria, which on Wednesday morning was filled with dozens of warmly dressed volunteers, and cardboard boxes, waiting for pickup, lining the walls three-deep or stacked in long rows on folding tables.
Wrangling all the donations was organizer Scott Klepper who bopped from task to task, asking, “You want something to do?”
It’s coordinated chaos, volunteer David Litvack agreed, noting that’s how most things in the world work, anyway.
Litvack came to the high school with his son, Gabe. He has been volunteering his time on and off for years.
“In our own lives, we’re very blessed. I feel like we have a responsibility to give back, to be part of the community, be apart of improving the community,” he said.
After years of volunteering, Livtack, who is the deputy chief of staff for Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, said the most important lesson he’s taken away is that building a better community isn’t something one should only do once a year.
At the west side apartment, volunteers David and Linda Baugh and their family reflected. It’s always good to see the smiles on people’s faces when the family arrives with the donations, David said. Plus, it’s just a good way to spend Christmas morning.
“Instead of thinking of ourselves,” Linda Baugh explained, "we’re helping others.”