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Life & Work with Rachel Pierce

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rachel Pierce.

Hi Rachel, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
In 2011 my spouse and I went on a humanitarian trip to Thailand. While there, we met up with a group from Syracuse, New York, who had started an organization serving refugees and the neighborhood they live in called Hopeprint. The original intent of our trip was to learn more about the sex trafficking dilemma. At the last minute, a visit to a refugee camp near the Thailand & Myanmar/Burma border. The visit to the refugee camp was life-changing. We wanted to stay there and work at the camp, but we had small children at home. We lived in the suburbs at the time and found out that refugees were being resettled in Kansas City, Kansas. Our family started volunteering with Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas in Kansas City, Kansas. We were matched with a couple from Burma and helped them learn English, learn how to drive, and help with other community navigation issues. We went to Kansas City, Kansas, on the weekends and started thinking, “Why are we just going on the weekend? Why don’t we move there?” In 2012, our family moved to Kansas City, Kansas. We were still friends with our original Burmese friends. We met more Burmese refugees through the neighborhood school our children attended.
I worked in administration at a couple of organizations and businesses in Kansas City, Kansas, that worked with refugees and immigrants. Our family volunteered with Burmese and Bhutanese/Nepali refugees in our community. I even helped out for a few months at an Asian market owned by a Burmese friend.
In 2017, Nicole Watts, the Founder, and CEO of Hopeprint, whom we had met in 2011 in Thailand, approached me about multiplying Hopeprint to Kansas City, Kansas. After many talks, visits, and planning meetings, we started a Hopeprint pilot program in 2018. We had an afterschool program for 6th graders (our son had just entered 6th grade). I helped them with homework, worked through the social/emotional learning curriculum, and learned about American cultural holidays. The kids loved carving pumpkins, making Christmas cookies, and hunting for Easter eggs.
The following year we added another program for elementary-aged children that was STEAM-based (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math). Kansas City, Kansas, became the second official location of Hopeprint.
2019 was a good year for Hopeprint in Kansas City, and we had our last program sessions before Spring break in 2020. As the story goes for everyone in 2020, we didn’t return to programs for the rest of 2020. Instead of hosting programs in our house, I started collecting school supplies, art supplies, and books to share with our Hopeprint families; as the city locked down and students started at-home learning, I kept in touch with our students and families through Facebook messenger.
I started receiving calls from many refugee friends asking for help filing for unemployment and filing for more food and cash benefits. In the Fall of 2020, we offered a few virtual art activities for elementary-aged students and a couple of outdoor events for middle school students. I also continued helping our refugee friends with community navigation needs. In the Summer of 2021, as things seemed to settle down, I wanted to do something to reignite Hopeprint in our neighborhood. We found a great little place in our neighborhood, Urban Station, owned by Steve Curtis (an artist, urban farmer, and community development guru). Urban Station is home to Urban Works, directed by Diosselyn Tot (a fantastic artist who also has a passion for community development). Although art hadn’t necessarily been Hopeprint’s focus in the past, I wanted to provide art opportunities to the kids in our low socio-economic neighborhood. Urban Station had an ideal space for small art classes, and we were able to give a few art classes in pottery, dance/movement, felting, murals, and stamp printing. This began a great renewal with our former Hopeprint families and some great relationships with some new families in our neighborhood. It also started a partnership with Hopeprint, Urban Station, and Urban Works; this partnership led to applying for a grant with the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission. We were awarded the grant in December 2021. Hopeprint and our collaborative partners look forward to a great 2022 providing a mentoring internship to refugee and immigrant youth in our neighborhood. By expanding our elementary-aged student art classes and camps and adding parent/young child art events to our neighborhood. The past 10 years have been a roller coaster ride, but it has been a fantastic journey working with refugees in our community in Kansas City, Kansas

Let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I have faced a few ups and downs over the past 10 years. When our family first moved to Kansas City, Kansas, we were naïve enough to think we would change the world. We led minor English as a Second Language classes, some citizenship classes, and helped with community navigation here and there, but nothing significant and grand. Even when we started programs and worked through Hopeprint, we never made a large impact. Years and experience have taught us, though, that it isn’t about enormous budgets, a large staff, and a volunteer team; it is the individual stories and the personal impact that we have experienced with our students and families that have changed our world.

Appreciate you sharing that. What else should we know about what you do?
My background is in Early Childhood Education. I have taught in preschools, head start programs, and daycare centers. That will always be my passion, but as I’ve grown and developed, my worldview has expanded to see the injustices of our world and community and the disenfranchisement of those marginalized in our society. I have learned so much from my refugee and immigrant friends. It has been a mutual educational experience. I want to spend the rest of my life doing what I can to continue the friendships and work with refugee and immigrant families in my neighborhood.

Where we are in life is often partly because of others. Who/what else deserves credit for how your story turned out?
My extended family has been a constant support. My spouse has been an incredible partner, my cheerleader, and we have a running joke about how we know changes are coming when one of us says, “You know, I’ve been thinking…”
My kids have always been supportive and flexible about whatever challenge we have faced.
Nicole Watts, the CEO, and Founder of Hopeprint, has been a wonderful mentor and friend.
Kristen Allen has been a great friend and has been my go-to person for resettlement information, coffee, sarcasm, and chats.
The Robertsons & The Totschs – have been friends, supporters, and cheerleaders; and have kept me sane with an excellent group text and the sharing of great memes.
Since the beginning, Joe & Judy LeMaster has been advocates, supporters, and friends.
Steve Curtis and Diosselyn Tot – have been invaluable partners this past year.
My refugee friends have become like family. (BW Cong & Nelly and their boys. The Lin Family. Gasayai & Leonia and their kids.)

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