CEDAR RAPIDS — It was about 15 degrees Wednesday morning, and Wachawaseme Ale was watching younger brother Abraham Irakoze climb into a red van that had just pulled up outside their southwest side apartment to give the fourth-grader a ride to Hoover Elementary.
The school is less than a mile away, but Ale was grateful his little brother wouldn’t have to walk there in the cold. Ale’s leg was in a cast — he recently broke it in a car crash — so he couldn’t take his brother to school. And his father and sister were at work. So the van ride was a huge help, he said.
It’s a new service from the Refugee and Immigrant Association, a nonprofit made up primarily of immigrants from Central and East Africa, serving community members in Johnson and Linn counties. The organization bought the van and started offering rides to school last week for children in a couple of southwest Cedar Rapids apartment buildings with large immigrant populations.
The effort grew from requests from the community. After the Aug. 10 derecho, the organization was active in some of the southwest side apartments that were hard hit by the storm, checking on residents and passing out charcoal for grills while the power was out and grocery store gift cards to help replace spoiled food.
Organizers wanted to know what else they could do to help. One need that was quickly identified was transportation. Many residents had lost their cars to tree damage and had only liability insurance, so couldn’t easily repair or replace them. Other parents work during the start or end of the school day but worried about their children walking to and from school alone.
“We asked, ‘What do you need for sustainability of the community?’” board member Belton Wendo said. “One community member came with the idea and said he has been knocking on doors at the schools and at other organizations to find transportation for kids who walk to school.”
The children they are helping live less than 2 miles from the schools and thus do not qualify for district busing under Iowa code, which says elementary and middle school students must live more than 2 miles from their school, and high school students must live more than 3 miles away.
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The man who proposed the idea was Felecien Nkulikiye, who lives at the Glenbrook Apartments. With Refugee and Immigrant Association member Immaculee Mukahigiro translating for him, he said his own children are too old to need the service, but he wanted to help all the children he saw walking each day. The route from the apartment complex to Hoover goes along busy Wiley Boulevard SW.
“When you get outside, you are very, very cold,” he said. “Even if you have a coat, walking is hard in winter. I have seen children walking and shivering. I felt bad I could not do anything about that. I was feeling bad in my heart.”
Right now the association has one van, though Wendo said it hopes to purchase a second, as the first van is already almost full each day, taking kids to Hoover and Cleveland elementaries.
Word of the service has spread by word-of-mouth through the parents who live in the buildings. Parents paid $20 each to contribute to the fundraising for the van, and organization board members raised the rest of the money from their own pockets and from other community members.
“Now we are thinking about how to get other community members to be involved,” Wendo said. “We’re welcoming everybody to come and volunteer for driving, taking kids to school and after school.”
People can learn more about the organization and how to get involved at refugeeimmigrant.org.
Wendo said they have formed a parents committee from the apartment complexes they’ve been working with, to collect input from residents and pass it on to the organization’s board. He said they want their support to reflect what the community says its needs, rather than make assumptions.
For Ale, watching his brother get a ride to school, this fit the bill.
“It’s the little supportive things. It’s perfect,” he said.
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