“Creativity can make a positive and welcoming impact on families right here in Charlottesville,” says Katie Bercegeay, volunteer coordinator for Charlottesville’s International Rescue Committee.
Though this applies to us all, she’s specifically referring to the refugees who are welcomed in Charlottesville through the ongoing efforts of IRC staff and volunteers. Since it was established in 1998, the Charlottesville branch of the IRC has helped resettle approximately 2,000 refugees in our region. A new effort led by City Clay pottery studio seeks to support these efforts to make refugees feel welcome, bringing together local artisans to craft handmade pottery for those who are working to make a new home for themselves.
The brainchild of City Clay owner Randy Bill, the inaugural Throwdown launched January 6. During this half-day event, members of the City Clay community and guest potters were invited to the studio to create—or throw on a pottery wheel—handmade dishes to donate to IRC refugees. More than a whimsical way to contribute to a local nonprofit, the event was a direct response to the IRC’s need for basic supplies to give to recently arrived refugee families, who often start with nothing as they embark on a new life.
“When a family first arrives in Charlottesville, we equip them with one of each essential items per person. With donations of kitchenware, families are able to move beyond their immediate needs and have multiple sets for themselves and more comfortably have company over for a meal, which is so customary, culturally speaking,” says Bercegeay. In fact, Bill’s idea for the project came from just this type of communal meal.
“This fall, my daughter, Annie Temmink, started tutoring [through the IRC] a young woman and her two roommates from the Congo. We invited them to Thanksgiving dinner and I got to know a little bit about their lives,” recalls Bill. “Our heart went out to these 20somethings as they face such a new and daunting life in Charlottesville. Yes, they are safe and receiving assistance, but the learning curve is almost incomprehensible.”
Consulting the IRC’s website for needed donations to support these new friends and other local refugees, Bill stumbled on a surprise. “After money and warm clothing were cups, plates and bowls,” says Bill. “It was such an obvious fit for [City Clay].”
From there, it was simple to conceptualize the Throwdown because City Clay potters have worked together on a similar project in the past, crafting bowls to be used at the Charlottesville SOUP series of micro-financing dinners. Bill activated her vast network of potters in the area and alerted the local IRC of her plans. “When I learned that City Clay would be hosting a throwdown to specially craft pots for refugee families, it warmed my heart,” says Bercegeay. The Throwdown launched with great enthusiasm from approximately three dozen participants. These local artisans donated their time and skills to the effort, resulting in about 150 dishes to be donated to refugees. The project is ongoing though, and Bill invites potters to continue contributing handmade goods to the IRC as part of City Clay’s efforts.
“My hope is that we will have a collection of pots from our studio along with donations from area potters to contribute quarterly, along with an annual Throwdown,” says Bill. “I have a feeling this will grow in ways we can’t yet imagine.” She adds that the Richmond IRC branch has already expressed interest in creating a similar initiative.
“I hope other community members and organizations will be inspired by the Throwdown: to learn more about refugees in our community—how they enrich Charlottesville culturally, linguistically and even economically,” adds Bercegeay. In addition to strengthening the refugee community and improving the lives of individuals within the IRC, the Throwdown and collaborative philanthropic efforts like it provide the chance to strengthen the ties between local potters as well.
“How fabulous for us to be able to do what we love and provide people in need with pottery produced in their community,” says Bill. “It is important that we find ways to welcome, in meaningful ways, those who have suffered so much.”
For those who aren’t skilled with clay, there are still plenty of other avenues to support IRC refugees in Charlottesville. “Needs vary greatly from person to person and family to family,” says Bercegeay. “Items such as heavy winter coats right now are in great demand. Assistance with English language learning and acclimating to the community and American culture are also great needs, which we assist with in several ways, including by matching volunteer tutors and mentors.” The list goes on and on.
What other ways can we creatively support local community members or nonprofits in the new year? Tell us in the comments below.