Celeste Ward, a Chattanooga native and current Chattanooga Stake Relief Society president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been named Bridge Refugee Volunteer of the Year. Bridge Refugees provides opportunities for refugees to rebuild their lives based on three pillars of refugee integration – including learning English, employment and community engagement. It is an organization about dignity, hope and opportunity.
Mrs. Ward began researching how she could get involved after a March 2016 letter to the worldwide membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints encouraged members to “assist refugees in their own communities” and remember that “one of the fundamental principles of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is to ‘impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, … administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally.”
Taking that counsel to heart, Mrs. Ward began her journey. “Honestly, my first thought was that there wouldn’t be any refugees in Chattanooga. Little did I realize the enormous needs right in my own backyard,” she said. Three years later, after helping dozens of refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and South America, she was recently named the Bridge Refugee Volunteer of the Year.
The journey has been both transformational and unexpected. “When I first got connected to Bridge Refugee Services and understood what was expected of volunteers, I thought I’d just drive some refugees to various appointments or help them get settled in some small way. However, I’ve found lifelong friendships and a deeper love for Christ-like service. Our entire family has been blessed as a result,” said Mrs. Ward.
Despite being a busy mother to five children (and new grandmother), Mrs. Ward made this a priority in her life. She has spent countless hours driving refugees to governmental agencies, doctor’s appointments, job interviews, grocery shopping, setting up apartments, registering the children for school, and anything else an individual or family might need. But her service is unique due to the personal interest she’s taken to help many of the refugees – far beyond what is expected of a volunteer.
One of the first families Mrs. Ward helped were refugees from war torn Iraq. They came to America with literally nothing. The father had trained as a doctor in Iraq but had to suspend his residency due to the ongoing war. His wife was an Arabic schoolteacher in Iraq and dreamed of one day becoming a pharmacist. After receiving death threats for assisting the U.S. military, the family made the difficult decision to flee Iraq. Out of concern for others still in Iraq, the family requests that their last name not be used.
After helping the family with short-term needs, Mrs. Ward turned her attention to their long-term needs – their educational pursuits so they could build a future in America. That began a very long and tedious process of acquiring university transcripts from Iraq, communicating with embassy officials, and filling out countless forms. “It was a tremendous amount of work, but they had no one to help them. With the language barrier and little resources, it would have been impossible for them to open the doors to education and better employment by themselves,” Mrs. Ward said. Today, as a result of Mrs. Ward’s efforts and the determination of the family, the wife is taking prerequisite courses for Pharmacy school and the father is preparing to take his medical equivalency tests that will allow him to continue his medical residency program. In fact, just a few months ago the wife excitedly called Mrs. Ward to share the fact that she’d earned straight “A’s” in her first semester of classes.
When asked about Mrs. Ward and the impact she’s had on his family, the Iraqi father said, “Celeste has become my sister. Celeste has changed our lives forever. She is the first American to help us accept a new life and overcome the trauma of leaving our family in Iraq. Celeste really tried to communicate with us, to understand our culture, and just spend time with us. She has touched our hearts and we love her entire family.”
President Spencer W. Kimball, 12th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints captured what Mrs. Ward and so many others have experienced by giving Christ-like service. He said, “When we are engaged in the service of our fellowmen, not only do our deeds assist them, but we put our own problems in a fresher perspective. When we concern ourselves more with others, there is less time to be concerned with ourselves! In the midst of the miracle of serving, there is the promise of Jesus that by losing ourselves, we find ourselves. We become more substantive as we serve others—indeed, it is easier to ‘find’ ourselves because there is so much more of us to find.”