It costs me so little to help,” says Gloria Walsh of her volunteer work with Congolese refugees, and yet she’s saying this as she makes the second six-hour round trip in a week from her suburban Chicago home to Appleton, Wisconsin, where many of these families have settled. The first trip was to accompany a diabetic woman to a doctor’s appointment. This one is to meet with teachers who will be welcoming Congolese kids, many of whom speak little English, into their classrooms. Walsh spends up to 40 hours a week volunteering for the Lake County Resettlement Group, which for the past three years has helped refugee families navigate the complexities of life in their new country. Cost — in time, effort, and money — is all a matter of perspective, says Walsh. “The things that are so difficult for the Congolese families are so easy for me.”
Walsh wasn’t looking for a full-time commitment when she retired from her human resources job in 2017. She already volunteered at her church, and she signed on with the resettlement group for just a six-month stint helping a single Congolese family, the Makyabes, who lived in Rogers Park. “As soon as I met them, I knew this is what I had to do,” she says. “They just pulled me in.” Within a month, Walsh was driving into the city on a daily basis, assisting the Makyabes with an ever-growing list of needs. Communicating mostly through Google Translate, Walsh helped both parents find stable work. She accompanied them to the DMV. She drove around for hours searching for a store that sold cassava roots in bulk. Soon the Makyabes were referring other Congolese families in Rogers Park to Walsh. “Every time I showed up, there were more people.”
The most persistent problem the families faced: making ends meet in an increasingly expensive city. In early 2018, Walsh met a recruiter from the JBS meat-processing plant in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who told her the company welcomed refugees. She also learned that Appleton, a short drive away, already had a small Congolese community. As of this year, she has helped four families relocate to Appleton and land jobs at JBS.
Today Walsh estimates that she’s assisted over 100 Congolese refugees across the Midwest, and she laughs at her earlier notion of helping them for just six months — this is now an open-ended commitment. “They are my family,” she says. “I want to be there for all the graduations and weddings.”