Keesha Renna calls herself "a poor college student." She's holding down two jobs while carrying a full load of courses at Boise State. When she's not working at the Guitar Center in Boise or as a bartender or cocktail waitress, she's making her way toward a degree in cultural anthropology. She's the vice president of the Boise State anthropology club.
But Renna is much more than a poor student. She's a volunteer, mentor and community organizer. In addition to her over-extended schedule of work and school, Renna is coordinating an event with which her club hopes to build new bridges between residents and their newest neighbors: relocated refugees from all corners of the globe. As if that's not enough, Renna and her colleagues are also about to launch a nine-day drive to gather much-needed personal items for Boise's refugee population.
Have you always been socially engaged?
My passion is conflict management. When I was 11 years old, I was a peer mediator in my sixth grade class. It was a real opportunity to alleviate bullying by strengthening our listening skills. I'd love to develop peer mediation programs in public schools someday.
Tell us about your work with refugees.
For about a year now, I've been a volunteer with the International Rescue Committee. I'm a family mentor. I visit a family's home each week. Zaina and her 13-year-old daughter Asha are refugees from Burundi.
We talk about the present and the future. We don't talk about the past so much unless they bring it up. It's usually an unpleasant topic. I spend a lot of time with Asha, making sure she's doing her homework. Her English is pretty good, but it's a real challenge for her mother.
Do you see your role as their advocate or mentor?
I see myself as their neighbor. And certainly as their friend as they assimilate to a new culture. I place myself in situations outside my own culture just to experience it. So I guess I'm doing for them what I would have wished someone would do for me.
And sometimes it's the simple things. Believe it or not, a high five was kind of a shock to them the first time I raised my hand. Culture anywhere is so different, but Western culture can be quite overwhelming.
What does the IRC ask you to do for them?
We're asked to check up on them to make certain they're managing their finances and practicing their English. Sometimes I take them grocery shopping. I read a lot of books with them, but we usually end up using a lot of charades to act out our words.
How has the time you spend with Zaina and Asha changed you personally?
I'm certain that I'm better at relating to people, which is incredibly important in my field of study.
Did your volunteer work encourage you to put together a collection drive?
Exactly. Because I'm in their home, I can see the things they need. We're going to have a kickoff event on Thursday, Nov. 11, at 6 p.m. at the Boise State Student Union Building. We're going to have a conversation about the needs of our refugee community. That will kick off a drive that will run from Nov. 11 through Nov. 19 on campus.
These families really need personal-care items like laundry detergent and soap and shampoo. Things like razors and diapers, toothpaste and feminine hygiene products. They desperately need hats, gloves, socks and underwear for kids.
Why is there such an urgency?
The IRC does an amazing job but the funds can only be stretched so far. Families get a limited amount of money for a limited amount of time. And a family unit is a family unit. That means a family of two might get $100 but a family of nine would also get the same amount.
Do the refugee children need learning supplies?
Absolutely. And they love books and movies. I gave an old tape of the movie Annie to Asha. And the next time I visited, all the refugee children in her apartment complex were singing "the sun will come out tomorrow."
Is the drive limited to the Boise State campus?
We'd love to extend the drive across the Treasure Valley. We're looking for businesses where we can have a drop-off box.
What's your ultimate goal?
We truly want each of the refugees that have been brought to Idaho to feel accepted here. To feel that they're a next-door neighbor instead of the odd man out. But in order to do that, they have very basic needs that need to be met first. Then we can go on from there.