New Beginnings Big Hearts
By Lauren Green
If you have been quarantined due to COVID, you probably remember the discomfort that comes with displacement. Clean clothes and easy access to the pantry are no longer a given when sequestered in the guest bedroom. Fortunately, for the majority of us, such inconveniences are usually short-lived and long forgotten. Soon enough, we reconnect with family and friends and resume our normal routine at home.
Yet for thousands of men, women and children around the world, displacement goes far beyond the confines of a guest bedroom. For those fleeing war, political persecution or the bonds of human trafficking, a return home — and we’re talking countries, not just houses — is not an option. The reasons prompting people to flee are varied, but one motivation drives them all: hope for the future.
Locally, hope shows up in the form of two friends, Holly Walsh and Beth Chernik. Radiating optimism, these Southlake pals share a proclivity for serving others. Walsh circles the globe as a flight attendant, having racked up more than 30 years of experience with Delta. Chernik, in a return to the paid workforce, recently celebrated her first anniversary as the seasonal events manager for the Grapevine Relief and Community Exchange (GRACE).
Both volunteer at Refugee Services of Texas. RST, as it’s known, is a statewide organization that welcomes displaced peoples with basic necessities, housing case management, jobs, language instruction and cultural orientation.
The draw of foreign cultures began early for Walsh. Even as a child, she remembers wanting to travel the world in order to meet people from different places. In 2016, White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake offered a volunteer orientation for its new refugee initiative ministry. Walsh was quick to sign up.
“I wanted to meet people arriving here as refugees, hear their stories and give them a warm welcome after all the struggles they’d been through,” she recalls. Today, she continues this volunteer work through RST, setting up apartments, delivering groceries, coordinating welcome meals — whatever she can do to make a refugee family feel at home.
To date, Walsh has welcomed over 175 individuals to North Texas, and her advocacy for refugees is going strong. “They fill my heart and break my heart with their stories,” she says. “I just want to be a face of kindness for them.”
She shares one story of meeting a particular young refugee from Afghanistan. Like the lone cardinal in a sea of blackbirds, his astonishing journey to the United States made an indelible mark on Walsh. So much so that even today he is considered part of her family.
But not all of her encounters are as uplifting. Unfortunately, the definition of “refugee” is often misunderstood. Walsh recalls having been questioned in the past about the ethics of volunteering her time with the refugee population. She is quick to point out that those conversations, thankfully, are few and far between. “I’ve seen the way our community’s compassion and generosity are actually changing lives.”
It is this call to action that resonates with Chernik. “No matter what your cause, helping others is the right thing to do.” She adds, “I don’t take tomorrow for granted. My circumstances could change one day, too. As humans, we should do our part to help one another.”
Since moving to Southlake in the summer of 2013, Chernik has set down roots as deep as any lifelong Texan. This, coupled with her natural inclination to help others, sets her apart as a dynamo volunteer. In her work with RST, Chernik is tasked with collecting the minutiae that transform a house into a home. From warm lighting to colorful tea towels to the favored Target welcome mat with its hearted-home graphic, Chernik assists Walsh in tracking it all down.
Considering that the only thing wider than Chernik’s smile is her persuasive reach, her role as self-appointed director of procurement proves a natural fit.
Like a Venn diagram, Chernik’s professional and personal connections overlap across numerous committees, cohorts and clubs. With each rallying email from Walsh, she alerts her curated crew of fellow RST volunteers. Together, they go about the work of gathering new, secondhand and even curbside treasures. Chernik enjoys a front-row seat, bearing witness to how, every time, the hodgepodge collection transforms into a coordinated home.
“I have found my place,” she says. “I volunteer my time with RST because home is where my heart is. Creating a new, safe home for someone else, regardless of the extenuating circumstances, is a gift I can give.”
These women are empowered to do what they do thanks in part to Hope Goldman. As the RST development associate for DFW, Goldman cultivates and stewards donor relations in the Metroplex and works alongside a statewide development team, raising funds and increasing awareness of refugee services. With service centers in Dallas, Fort Worth, Amarillo, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and the Rio Grande Valley, RST is the largest resettlement agency in the state.
With more than 800 displaced individuals served last year alone, Goldman has her work cut out for her. Yet perhaps because of her previous work as RST’s community engagement coordinator, Goldman exudes the seasoned confidence that comes from knowing every act of service makes a difference in a life. She is quick to point out that behind the lamp donations, the airport pickups and the welcome-home dinners, what most inspires RST volunteers are success stories like that of Jane Gow.
A former Southlake resident and onetime refugee from Vietnam, Gow knows firsthand the obstacles one faces when leaving your homeland. Recently, Gow shared the story of her Saigon escape and eventual resettlement in the United States at a community program organized by the Southlake Public Library.
There, she promoted RST’s newly published book, Plated Stories: Legacies from Home to Table, and shared samples of her one-of-a-kind Vietnamese coffee. This past December, Gow capitalized on her coffee know-how and founded Bekinder Coffee. Now, after 30 years in the IT industry, she’s using her coffee business to help other refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of human trafficking. By offering employment opportunities at Bekinder Coffee, Gow plans to pay it forward.
“I am working to hire clients from Refugee Services of Texas and provide job training,” she explains. She’s also quick to offer a cup of coffee for anyone in need … on the house. “This is what I can do to help the country that took me in.”
Gow is one of the fortunate few, considering that less than 1 percent of the refugee population is invited to resettle in any country. When displaced, the vastness of our world is immense, especially for these men, women and children looking for new beginnings. But for these four women, the world is still small enough to reach one person at a time, offering the gifts of hope and home.
Divided by country, continent and/or region, Plated Stories pairs recipes with families assisted by Refugee Services of Texas. They tell their stories of coming to the United States and what their native dishes mean to them. The Chhean family of Cambodia walked to Thailand when the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. They ended up in California’s Central Valley, where they ran a doughnut shop/gas station. The Chheans moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 2005. The children grew up to work in medicine, law, graphic design and esports. All family members are now U.S. citizens; daughter Chhunny is on the RST board of directors. Among the recipes they share is this filling soup. Check the website to purchase. rstx.org
Lemongrass Chicken Soup
- 5 chicken thighs or legs, with skin and bones
- 3 garlic cloves, whole
- 1½ tablespoons salt
- 1½ tablespoons fish sauce
- 3 inner stems lemongrass, about 8 inches each
- 5 kaffir lime leaves
- 1 tablespoon jasmine rice
- 15 cups water
- 2 cups sliced mushrooms (any type except portobello)
- Garnishes: Juice of ½ lime, cilantro, scallions
Add all soup ingredients to a stockpot. Bring to a boil, lower heat and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes until chicken is cooked thoroughly.
Add mushrooms and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Discard lemongrass stems and lime leaves.
Serve with lime juice, cilantro and chopped scallions.