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Since 2006, Heather has helped 16 families resettle in Nelson and also coordinated the Red Cross refugee support volunteer training for five of those years.
The journey began when a friend convinced Heather to attend the training with her.
“I ended up going but she didn’t,” Heather laughs. “I was completely hooked after the first session though.”
Although everyone Heather has supported is memorable, her first placement was particularly so. She was supporting a family of five from Myanmar and recalls taking them to their new home. Watching the parents and children settle in was a reward itself.
“Seeing them opening the cupboards and finding everything we’d filled them with was just the most incredible experience.”
Heather supports an average of two families each year, depending on the individuals.
“Some of the families have more complex needs which makes the level of support more intensive and the support period longer,” she says.
“However, many families settle really quickly, especially if they have extended family already settled in Nelson.”
Another experience that sticks in her mind was with a family whose 17-year-old son didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived.
He spent two years learning the language and soon found employment, working two jobs. Four years after arriving, he approached Heather about buying a house. She was a tad sceptical but took him to the bank to see what his options were. She was surprised and proud to discover that he’d saved more than enough for a deposit; he then bought a house for him and his family to live in.
“It really showed me that if you put your mind to something, you can achieve it,” she says.
Heather has kept in touch with all the people she’s supported over the years, often seeing them at events she’s invited to within the Burmese community.
A lot of refugee support volunteers in Nelson find the experience incredibly rewarding and return for a second, third, fourth, or 16th placement – something that doesn’t surprise Heather.
“Volunteers are so well looked after and supported by Red Cross so there are higher numbers of people who are coming back to volunteer again and again,” she says.
How to help
Our refugee support volunteers are the friendly faces that act as a welcoming committee for former refugees when they arrive in New Zealand. You can apply to join our team here.