Retired teacher advocates for refugees while battling cancer

Friday , April 21, 2017 - 12:02 AM

By TRENT TOONE Deseret News

SOUTH SALT LAKE, Utah (AP) — When The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints launched its “I Was a Stranger” initiative last year, Don Ward couldn’t help but smile.

People were suddenly motivated and wanted to get involved. But there was a problem.

“I had people say, ‘I would really love to help refugees. I wish there were some in Utah,‘” Ward said. “I’d tell them there are 60,000 refugees in Utah, and they’d say, ‘Are you serious?‘”

The figure of 60,000 is correct, according to the Utah Refugee Coalition. The refugees primarily come from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and find homes in Salt Lake County.

Ward, a 75-year-old retired high school history teacher, estimated that he and others have helped more than 20,000 refugees in Salt Lake County over the past eight years.

And he’s done so while battling cancer.

“I feel I have been blessed in my life . and this is a way to show appreciation for those blessings,” Ward said. “Against some significant odds, I am still here. I know I still have cancer, but because I’m so busy with these things . cancer is not the focus of my life.”

Ward taught AP history and student government at Jordan and Alta high schools for 35 years before he retired, although he continues to be a substitute teacher.

About 10 years ago, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Ward said he has undergone about 60 chemotherapy treatments during that time, but has felt better in recent years.

The opportunity to help refugees arose for Ward in 2008. When a teacher at South Salt Lake’s Granite Park Junior High School died, Ward took over his classes. One class had 24 students who spoke 19 different languages. They came from countries like Thailand, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Myanmar (Burma). Not one spoke English.

“One spoke Spanish and all the rest were official refugees,” Ward said.

Leading up to Christmas, an LDS ward in Draper asked Ward for the names of five or six families to help during the holidays. Ward immediately thought of his international students. He tried to narrow it down to five or six of the most needy, but word leaked out among the students and Ward realized he needed to do something for all 24.

A short time later, Ward, some former Alta High students and other friends organized a donation drive for refugee families at parent/teacher conference. Families passing by a table were invited to take any items they needed, Ward said.

Whitney Watchman, a former Alta student of “Mr. Ward,” was then a counselor at Granite Park Junior High. That’s when Ward “caught fire,” said Watchman, now an assistant principal at East High School.

According to Watchman, Ward coordinated the delivery of large trucks full of furniture, mattresses, clothing, small and large appliances and bikes.

“He noticed most of the refugee population had a hard time getting around. He started collecting bikes,” Watchman said. “Pretty soon any student that needed a bike had a bike. The bike rack at school went from empty to full.”

Since then, Ward has continued to generate donations for refugees from friends and former students through social media. His projects have distributed used clothing, hygiene kits, bicycles, fans, bed sheets, towels, toilet paper, diapers, wet wipes, cleaning supplies and other consumable items. In the process, he has, by his own estimation, helped about 100 young men complete Eagle Scout service projects.

Ward estimates his friends have provided Christmas for as many as 500 families over the past several years.

Ward doesn’t like to collect money. He prefers people buy an item and bring it to one of his donated storage units. The one exception is when Ward gives graduating refugees a $20 gift card. Ward said he donates most of what he earns as a substitute teacher or tutor to his refugee projects.

Ward and a few friends sometimes knock on doors at apartment complexes in South Salt Lake, looking for people to help.

“I went to one apartment project with 86 apartments, and 82 had refugees,” Ward said. “They usually don’t speak English, but we are able to communicate.”

According to Ward’s experience, refugees in Utah come from three areas of the world — Asia (Myanmar, Thailand and Nepal), Africa (North and South Sudan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Tanzania, Djibouti, Chad and more) and the Middle East (Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan). He has also met families from Venezuela.

Because of his refugee efforts and his membership in the LDS church, Ward is often invited to speak at Mormon gatherings or community civic groups. On those occasions, he brings a refugee to share the story of his or her journey to Utah.

Ward and a young woman from the Karenni Tribe in Myanmar recently spoke at an LDS stake youth fireside. In her remarks, the girl, now a senior at Cottonwood High School, told how her three sisters died from drinking dirty water. She also discussed living in a Thailand refugee camp for most of her life.

“It was heart-wrenching,” Ward said. “For the kids, her talk was more effective than mine. They were amazed at what she had been through in her life.”

When people hear the personal accounts of suffering and need, they respond.

Last week, students from Gunnison Valley High School made and handed out Easter baskets to families and children at a South Salt Lake apartment complex. The week before that, students from the Westlake LDS seminary collected 41,000 diapers and passed them out to five or six apartment complexes. More projects are always in the works, Ward said.

“These people do as much for me as I can do for them,” Ward said. “They are amazing, amazing people.”

The projects have a unifying effect on those involved, Ward said.

“The thing I like about this is the people who help me are from all faiths,” he said. “They are Mormon, non-Mormon, anti-Mormon; they come from all races, all cultures; they are conservatives, liberals, moderates, people who hate (President Donald) Trump and love Trump. They are straight and gay. It doesn’t make any difference to me what their beliefs or philosophies are. We are all working together for a common cause, and it’s to help these amazing people.”

Ward was recently honored with a community service award by South Salt Lake Mayor Cherie Wood, who called him a “hero.”

“Clearly none of this would have started or carried on without his championing the cause,” Wood said. “If Don wasn’t the voice for these families, much of the good work wouldn’t happen.”

For a man who once phoned his missionary son on Christmas Eve to say final goodbyes because he thought he was about to die, and who deals with cancer and other physical challenges, Ward is one of the most engaged, active and positive people Watchman has met. He is also thoughtful and generous.

“People, not money, is Mr. Ward’s fortune,” Watchman said.

Many who hear his story ask Ward how they can help. Ward suggests donating to organizations like Catholic Community Services, International Rescue Committee, or any of several refugee centers in South Salt Lake.

People can also give time and talents by tutoring students, teaching citizenship classes, English classes or donating to the Utah International Charter School.

“They can also strike out on their own and find people,” Ward said. “If you look you will find them. They are all over South Salt Lake and West Valley. They are everywhere.”

Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com

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