Welcome Neighbor STL began in the fall of 2016 with a toiletry drive for newly-arrived refugee families and has organically grown into a multifaceted organization with over 1,900 supporters. The organization partners with community allies to help meet the evolving needs of refugee families.
Welcome Neighbor STL began in November 2016 with a toiletry drive for refugee families. Founder Jessica Bueler had no idea that she was starting an organization when she organized the drive; she just felt compelled to do something after reading an article in the Riverfront Times about a group of teen refugees who were attacked outside their home near the Page and Hodiamont intersection.
Bueler signed up to use the social media platform Nextdoor to connect with neighbors to share what she learned about the refugee families. It turns out that she wasn’t the only one who wanted to do something to help. The response to the toiletry drive was overwhelming; two trucks were needed to deliver the collected items, and the people who helped collect the items were eager to do more. They began visiting the refugee families living at ‘Hodiamont,’ forming friendships and helping the families navigate this new, unfamiliar world.
Initially, Welcome Neighbor STL worked to ensure that the refugee families had their basic needs met. They helped families find furniture, translate necessary documents, learn English, and eventually move out of the buginfested apartments to nicer homes.
As the refugees’ needs change, so does the organization’s efforts; it’s ever-evolving. “Now it’s about giving the refugees a platform so that they can create a better life and future for themselves,” says Bueler.
The Supper Club dinners have done just that. To date, there have been 78 dinners held throughout St. Louis City and County, raising $121,000. One hundred percent of the proceeds are given to the refugee women who prepare the meals. This popular event has brought the community together for family-style meals, while at the same time, helping to provide a meaningful income for refugee women who are still able to stay home and care for their children.
Welcome Neighborhood STL’s success is a larger story about what can happen when communities come together to support a common goal.
Since that initial toiletry drive, the organization has grown to over 1,900 supporters, each offering something unique. Some partner with a refugee family, helping them with tasks such as enrolling their kids in school or filling out insurance forms; others teach English or even provide monetary donations. “We ask the volunteers about their skills and what they enjoy doing,” says Bueler. “There’s no cookie cutter approach.”
The Supper Club dinners wouldn’t exist without donated venues, community members purchasing tickets, and mentors helping lead the way. Christy Schlafly at Ford Hotel Supply has been instrumental in making it possible for refugee cooks to receive their ServSafe certificates by coordinating the translation of the training materials from English to Arabic. Those efforts have allowed more than 30 refugee cooks to complete the program and earn their ServSafe Food Handlers Certificates.
A partnership with St. Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today (START), a studentled group from St. Louis Priory School, has enabled Welcome Neighbor STL to expand their work. Each Sunday morning, students from START pick up 40-50 meals, which have been prepared by a volunteer refugee cook, and deliver these meals to the homeless population in the city. Plans are in place to extend this service to veterans who are homebound.
“I want our narrative to be about helping people,” says Bueler.
Welcome Neighbor STL is truly an organization by the community and for the community