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  • "Those People Became My People." Bob's Story

    "I grew up among a lot of raging racists. Some of the things that I heard in my youth were more than slightly offensive. From high school onward I really worked on counteracting those attitudes in my own life, and I guess I can confess that I was a little bit proud of myself for being able to escape all that had been presented to me in my formative years. I considered myself pretty enlightened by comparison.  But as Upper Arlington Lutheran Church started working with Festa, some of those old prejudices started bubbling back up - those people, those immigrants. I wasn’t interested in associating with them.  I had bought into common misconceptions about many of the immigrants in our country. At the same time, I was around a lot of guys who had come back from the wars in the Middle East with extremely negative attitudes concerning the people in those regions. "For many years, I’d done a lot around the church. At the time when UALC was planning to bring Festa's Family ESL Program into the building, I was on the Missions Committee and my second term on the Church Council, so I was familiar with the prayer and leading of the Spirit that went behind bringing this program in, but I had zero interest in participating. It was outside my comfort zone, although I was unsure what exactly was causing my reluctance to get involved." Then somebody invited my wife, Christie, to volunteer at the ESL program, and her experience was very positive. She began to bug me, saying: “You know, you really need to pray about this.” And she is the person I respect the most in my life, so I did that. I started praying a lot about it.  After a year, I was softened up enough to at least go and give it a try. As I volunteered that first couple of months, it was obvious that God was working in a miraculous way in my heart, because if you’d gone back a couple of years from that first semester and told me I’d be volunteering at an ESL program serving those people, I would have said: “NO WAY, NO HOW!" Christie and I committed to helping at ESL on Tuesday nights, and since we had become empty nesters, Thursday nights were our set date night.  One Thursday evening, we were sitting at a restaurant and we both looked at one another and said: “There’s something better we could be doing with our Thursday nights than sipping margaritas and munching chips.” That's when we committed to volunteering both nights each week. I’m not going to speak for Christie, but that was the moment when God cleaned my heart of all of the misgivings, and I was all in. I have come to love and respect those people; they have now become my people. Christie and I pray that we will reflect the light of Jesus to our students.  As a bonus, we’re doing something practical that they truly need and want in their lives. I no longer judge people and situations based solely on my sheltered upbringing. I’ve gotten to know many different people who have immigrated from countries all over the world. Our relationships and their stories continue to enrich my life in many ways, maybe even in more ways than I think it has any of my students’ lives.

  • Festa Empowers

    “I met Festa through a friend when I was going through a tough time in my life. I was in a situation in my life where I needed resources to start over, and I was very lost and down. “As an immigrant, I was totally alone in this country. I had no family and I felt lost. I didn’t have hope that it would ever get better for me. I couldn’t fix everything that had happened on my own. I didn’t know how to start over or do anything to make my situation better. When I spoke to Kim on the phone, she made me understand that I'm not alone. She encouraged me that my life could be fix-able, even if I had to start from zero. Knowing that I had resources was the most encouraging thing; I didn't know there were any resources for me to use, or if the government was against me and would just send me back home if I asked for help. “I remember [Kim and I] first met at a church. I almost didn’t go to the meeting. I was told I was allowed to come to the church any time I wanted. Kim explained there's police and many other people that could help with what I was going through; I thought the police would be against me because I’m not from here. She introduced me to a lawyer for immigration and went with me to meet with them. The lawyer gave me some peace of mind that there was hope of safety for me here. “The hardest part about being immigrant is that you just don't know about how any of the systems work. I constantly would think, ‘I'm going to be in trouble. The government doesn’t want me and they won’t help me.’ That’s what the government is like in my country. I'd been told that American people are bad, and not to trust the American people and police and government. So I really couldn’t trust anyone. I very much felt isolated. Even when I started to make some friends, they would ask if I wanted to go out for a playdate with our children and I questioned that. I was scared that they were planning something bad for me because of what I’d been told - don't trust, don’t trust, don’t trust. “Starting your life over is very stressful. I had to learn to trust other people and that was hard at the beginning, but the people I met through Festa kept showing up for me. It was amazing to have those kinds of people around me. I was surrounded by good people. The biggest gift I was given was learning I had options. It's not like I had to do everything one way or else I was going to be in trouble. I was making decisions for the first time in many years by myself. I was empowered. At first I kept questioning myself – ‘Am I doing the right things for myself and my son?’ It was hard. Throughout everything the Festa staff was following up with me all the time. They were always reaching out to me asking me how things were going and telling me about more people they could introduce me to that would be able to help. Then the court and the police started helping. It was like puzzles being put together and I finally realized I wasn’t in danger around these people. “Festa gifted me a laptop and it was the best thing ever. I started applying to jobs on Indeed and I also signed up to go to school. One of the first times I used it, I was at the gym sitting in an armchair in the lobby area because I could get free childcare for two hours at a time. I literally had zero money. I was using those two hours to apply for jobs and make phone calls. After a while the battery wasn’t functioning, so I had to get up to plug it in, and when I moved out of the chair, the cushion moved to the side and I found a $20 bill. I was surprised. When I sat back again in the chair, I found another $40 in the exact same spot. I didn’t know what to do but I knew that was not my money. I called one of my friends and told her what happened, and she's like, ‘I promise that is for you. God is taking care of you. When you have more money someday, you can share with someone else who needs it.’ I still felt strange, but I desperately needed gas and some basic stuff, and it was just enough money for that. “Festa helped me figure out all the tasks as a series and make a plan for myself step by step. Getting a job, getting a home, getting childcare, going to school. When I got my first job, I remember I was like, this is fantastic. Something to start with. I found a temporary place to live and childcare for my son. And then I was able to do a lot of healing for both of us. Friendship was my most important resource at that time. My friends were compensating for me not having a family here. I feel like they are my family now. Anytime I was feeling down and I had no hope to continue this process, the reminded me that this was going to be a very long process but that I was doing everything to stay on the right track. ‘You're doing well. Keep going. Don't give up.’ “It's been interesting for me to look back. I can just now understand how much I achieved and how important the people around me have been. It’s hard to see when you’re in it; you just feel how stressed you are, how down you are, how much more work there is to do. When you look back, you'll be like, ‘Oh, I went so far. How did I do it? I did it with amazing friends.’ A lot of negative thoughts can still control you. You will need people to remind you: you’re doing a good job. This is your life. You still have options. “When I finally had my graduation, a whole group of my supporters and people who love me and walked through the journey with me were there to celebrate when I walked across the stage. And when I moved to my next apartment that was bigger and and gave us more space, they welcomed me in and helped set everything up. I have done things to volunteer with Festa, helping other people who are experiencing the same things I went through. I don't want to think about what my life would have been like without Festa.”

  • Festa Helps Families Move Out of Poverty

    “Festa not just an English class where people come then go. Festa is so much more! I often think about when I met Festa in 2017 and the close friends I I made there. Our family found another English class, but was nothing like [Festa]. It was only for adults. I signed up for English classes for my mom and me, but since we could not take the children with us, the two of us split the classes every other time and took turns watching the children. I was lucky to have my mom; many other people couldn't come at all because they had children and no one to watch them. Parents can bring their children here, and the Festa staff knows each child by the name. Sometimes I can't even remember my three children's names!  As a mom, I am the one to take care of my children. Even leaving them with my husband I sometimes get worried about them, like, ‘Did he remember to do this? Did he do that? Do the children have everything they need?’ When I got to Festa, I just dropped my children off and went on to my class.  No worries. The teachers let me bring my newborn baby to the class if I needed to, but I felt like, ‘I can come to class myself and focus on studying!’  I needed English lessons, and I felt that everyone in the class knew and supported me. I loved it. They even served coffee for the parents and gave us time to talk to each other as adults." "A lot of people teach English and they come, do their job and leave. Festa is not like this. Festa cares about so much more than just learning English. You take care of me and my family. It feels like a family; we share problems with each other. I can talk about my children and what’s going on with them. My children would text their cousins to say they got to hang out with everyone at the ESL program, and their cousins were always jealous. Festa staff is like famous people to my children! I remember when I was pregnant and had terrible morning sickness, you gave strength to me.  You let me rest in a comfortable chair at the church while my children were playing at summer camp and gave me care like you would your mom or sister, the way only people who are close to you would do. A volunteer has helped my son with planning for his future; my son asked lots of questions about what to study in school, and he listened and has been working hard. That relationship affected him a lot. "Our family’s business slowed during Covid and I remember people from Festa kept calling us weekly to ask how we were doing, how our business was doing. No one else did that. Festa helped us with our rent one month.  When someone came to our home to give us the check, my husband and I were like, ‘oh my…,’ we were stunned and grateful, and we decided then that we’d give back when we could. "Our family is doing so well now. Our business is well. It's so busy I don't attend English classes anymore! I’m working toward my dream of being a writer.  I keep a notebook and every night before bed I write parts of my novel. Festa introduced me to a man who helps me and checks my writing in English so it translates fully from my native language. When I am finished writing, he will help me learn how to publish my story."

  • “A language barrier is no match for the power of human connection.”

    In January of 2022 we met a family of seven — five children plus a mom and a dad — who arrived in our country from Afghanistan after the US troops withdrew and the Taliban conflict intensified. They had to leave quickly and they arrived in our country with little more than the clothes on their backs. They got adopted by a local church that Festa partners closely with — a team of 15 people who wrapped their arms around this family. They started with setting up a home. It’s extremely difficult to find affordable housing for families of any size, let alone a large family of seven, but finally the team secured a three bedroom townhouse and they went after furnishing it. No one in the family spoke English because their plan had never been to come to the United States. They were like deer in the headlights as they stepped into the airport shuttle to meet their new English-speaking friends. However, a language barrier is no match for the power of human connection. In no time, the family and the volunteers fell in love with each other and became family. The first thing the church group did was to enroll this family in Festa’s 3-Generation Family ESL program. The mom and dad began attending ESL classes and all 5 children got the education support they needed, from preschool to homework help. From there, things began to fall into place. Dad was able to get a full time job, to which volunteers drove him daily at 5:30 a.m. before driving the children to school. The children got settled in school and quickly soaked up their new language there and at Festa’s 3-Generation Family ESL program. A year later Dad earned his driver’s license, offering his family freedom. Mom’s improved English has allowed her to become an entrepreneur. Through partnership with Festa, she started selling her spectacular food at a local farmer’s market, and this has grown into a catering business for her. One of the church volunteers said, “Of all we did to wrap around this family, the BEST thing we did was bring them to Festa’s 3-Generation Family ESL program. Without this program, none of the help we gave would have mattered.”

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