‘Full to overflowing’

Sexsmith, Bezanson and Beaverlodge parishioners grateful to help refugees

With big hearts and open arms, Lucille Partington and Lynne Oe have dedicated the past year to helping hundreds of refugees resettle in the Grande Prairie area.

Though they may be both in their seventies, these two seniors keep an active schedule, helping around 12-15 families every month access food and furniture. Most of these families have fled war torn or impoverished countries like Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan and elsewhere.

What drives both Lucille and Lynne in their tireless efforts is a calling: to respond to the cry of the poor and to follow Christ’s witness of charity.

“We were always ones who saw our mandate as hearing the cry of the poor and going to help those in need,” said Lucille. “We believe it’s essential to our faith. We’ve always known this is what God wants us to do.”

“We have the hearts for it,” Lynne added. “It keeps us busy, but it’s a ‘good’ busy.”

They are, of course, not doing it all on their own. They’ve especially relied on the help of volunteers and fellow parishioners across Sexsmith, Beaverlodge and Bezanson. Just over this past summer, they have helped a family with six children from Cameroon, two families from Syria, a family from Columbia, two families from India, a family from Sudan, and several more Afghani and Ukrainian families besides.

Donated items for refugee families were first kept at Immaculate Conception Church in Sexsmith.

“People warn us that we’re going to run out of donations, but we never do because this is God’s operation. God puts the people there to help us the day we need help,” said Partington. “It’s beautiful how things have worked out. We can tell you of many little miracles in which we can see the hand of God helping us.

“Just this past week we resettled two Ukrainian families and we had everything we needed for them furniture-wise except a set of pots and pans. And then the very next day, Lynne’s friend stopped by to donate the exact set of pots and pans we needed.”

It’s now been over nine months that Lynne, Lucille and their fellow volunteers have been helping in this initiative.

It was with the takeover of Afghanistan by the Talban in 2021 that the Canadian government committed to bring a minimum of 40,000 Afghani refugees to the country. Many large cities in Canada were strapped for resources to take in such a large influx of immigrants, so smaller cities like Grande Prairie were chosen as areas where families could resettle.

As the Newcomers Association of Grande Prairie welcomed growing numbers of families to the city, they soon found the burden was getting overwhelming – particularly in the need for furniture and food aid. Knowing Lucille Partington’s involvement with a charitable bread ministry in Sexsmith and her dedication to social justice, she was soon approached to help these families access food.

Donations of furniture and other items have come to the group largely through parishioners and friends.

Instantly Lucille became making contacts and organizing. Mia Klein-Gebbinck, Beaverlodge parishioner and the archdiocesan leader for Development and Peace-Caritas Canada, soon helped spread the word.

“We first got involved because of our reputation through our food ministry. But what happened next, which we never expected, was that the refugees all needed furniture,” Lucille explained.

It was then that Bezanson parishioner Lynne Oe, who has become the “mover and shaker” of the group thanks to her large truck, became an important asset as they began gathering and delivering furniture donations.

Initially the group used the basement of Immaculate Conception Church in Sexsmith to store the furniture, but as donations and demand increased, they were in need of a larger space. They contacted MP Chris Warkentin, who helped them access a storage space at Lee’s Sheet Metal in Grande Prairie. Since then, furniture donations have been stored there, and refugee families can go to this storage space and take whatever they are in need of.

“It’s amazing the stuff people give,” said Partington, reflecting on the overwhelming number of donations they’ve received. “Clarke Building, who were part of the construction for the hospital, had small apartments while they worked here, and when they moved they donated $40,000 worth of furniture to us and it was all pretty much brand new. So many of these families got brand new furniture.”

Lynne Oe celebrates a birthday party with one refugee family they have helped.

All in all, its an effort that requires many hands on deck.

“We spearhead it, but there area many volunteers in the background,” said Lucille. “We call whoever we need to gather things and help us out. We have young people in Sexsmith that help us move furniture and often we get the families to help us move things from the storage shed.”

The experience has also meant the fostering of many strong friendships. Lynne has become particularly close with one Afghani family, whose young daughter came to Canada with only one dress.

“I said I’d help her get some more. Because they need long dresses, I thought to reach out to the Mennonites. From there I was able to get her a whole bunch of dresses. She was just so ecstatic and happy,” Oe recalled.

As dedicated members of the Catholic Women’s League – and Lucille their current archdiocesan president – it’s also been a way of continuing the legacy of the CWL.

“That’s how the CWL started – helping refugees and immigrants,” said Lynne. “It’s so important we keep doing that.”

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story, with an additional reflection from St. Joseph Refugee Committee member Helen MacDonald, in the September 2023 edition of Northern Light