Once We Were Refugees (OWWR) is a Missouri not-for-profit corporation with IRS 501 (c) (3) approved tax-exempt status.
OWWR was founded by Rev. William and Ann Say, incorporated in June 2017. Our stated mission is to help refugees located in the Kansas City area learn skills that will help them find suitable employment. The only restriction we impose for student participation in our ministry is that they must have come to the United States as refugees. We charge no tuition. We are all volunteers. Nearly all of the materials needed to provide this training are donated by generous people who want to help us help refugees.
5001 Independence Avenue Location
We started by teaching sewing with household sewing machines that were donated by generous helpers—at first many came from Martin Luther congregation members! Sewing continues to be the primary interest of most of our students. We currently have about 16 volunteers engaged in various roles- teaching sewing, sorting fabrics and notions, sewing machine maintenance and repair, picking up donated items, keeping a very modest set of records, keeping track of our history, and serving on our board of directors. We offer a nine-week beginning course that meets on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from noon to three. Students learn to create pillow cases, skirts with inset pockets and elastic waistbands, reusable grocery bags, aprons, and finally, each student will create a tied quilt that will be sent via Lutheran World Relief to an area of need somewhere in the world. When they graduate each student takes home the sewing machine they learned to operate, a brand new iron and ironing board, a new pair of scissors, notions, and about ten yards of fabric—enough to get them started sewing for their families at home.
Students who show an aptitude for sewing and interest in making that a vocational pursuit are encouraged to continue in an advanced setting to learn to operate industrial machinery. For that teaching we have an industrial straight stitch machine, an industrial overlock (serger), and a long-arm quilting machine—all donated for this use. A local small apparel manufacturer has hired a number of our graduates and is well pleased with their service. We are especially proud of one of our early graduates who has now been promoted twice! She and her husband, both hard workers and great spirited people, put a down payment on their first home in July, and now reside with her mother and their seven children in their very own home!
We champion the inclusion of all people—We are NOT the church; it is not our mission to save or convert our clients.
We foster client independence—vocationally and culturally
We create opportunity
We enable sustainability
We promote/facilitate social engagement
In addition, we support and reflect diversity through:
OWWR Board membership is diverse in race and background
Current local clientele is very diverse in religion, country of origin, economic opportunity (we have serviced clients from 23 different countries of origin), but also employment readiness and education level.
The bulk of the graduates of our program have been women from countries of origin where women-led enterprise is discouraged or forbidden. For them to be enabled with skills that contribute to the family welfare through direct sales or employment raises their value toward a more equitable status in the family and the community at large. Several graduates have started their own businesses, making and selling native clothing (Somali, Sudanese) and wedding Hijabs, catering Muslim weddings, creating henna tattoos to name a few. This indicates that OWWR develops opportunities and confidence as well as specific skills.
Juwira arrived from Somalia as a toddler in the early years of the 21st century. She and her mother came together and have been family for each other ever since. In the intervening years Mom opened a fabric outlet, specializing in Somalian weaves and prints. Juwira did what most of her contemporaries in the United States do, she went to school.
Now, in her second year of college, she is studying business from top to bottom. You see, her mother has dreamt all these years that Juwira would, when she was ready, begin to transform Mom’s goods into clothing—a solid base to form her own small business. First, though, Juwira needed to learn what Mom had not, how to sew! She took our beginning sewing class, graduating in July of this year, with honors, no small task while also doing full time college studies. She followed the formal classes with one-on-one tutoring offered by Ann Say, and is already producing marketable pieces in the traditional Somali styles.
As she continues to grow her academic training and her sewing skills she is taking more and more joy in the fulfillment of what was once just a dream! For her the surprising bonus is that now her sewing is actually serving to help pay her college tuition.
WE ARE EVER SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO TO SURPRISE OUR NEW REFUGEE FRIENDS WITH JOY!
Certified Nurse Aid
Certified Nurse Aide—we reported in October of 2018 that one of our sewing class graduates expressed a heart-felt desire to be a nurse. We were able to locate a suitable training program at the Don Bosco center and funded her tuition and supplies. Well, folks, the news is wonderful! She graduated from that program in early January of 2019 and was on her way to employment in a nursing home with her new certification and title! She celebrated with the class now about to graduate by bringing in lunch for the students and volunteers. She is now working to get a crochet group started at Della Lamb Community Services to pay her gifts forward, she is becoming a volunteer refugee worker! We could not be prouder of this very special person.
Sewing Class Graduates
To January, 2021, we have graduated 143 students from our beginning sewing classes in the five years since this project was launched. Most have gone on to create sewn items for their family households. Many have added to that by taking on sewing projects for friends and country mates and have been able to contribute that way to their family financial resources. Besides these, several have found full time employment in a garment shop creating uniforms for sporting teams.
We have been proud of and grateful for our close relationship with Mr. Mike Mitchell of Restoration Apparel.
Rev. William B. Say, MDiv, retired ordained clergy, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is OWWR Board Chair and Treasurer. Involved in the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in the state of Hawaii, mid 1970’s, helped to found Vietnamese Immigrant Volunteer Assistance (VIVA) in Honolulu. Co-founder of OWWR with Ann.
Ann Say, BS, MBA, and retired Nursing Home Administrator, is an award-winning quilter. Ann is OWWR Director of Education. She and William together have extensive experience beginning in the 1970s in resettling refugees from Vietnam, Laos, apartheid South Africa, and Syria and have adopted orphans from Vietnam and Calcutta, India. She is currently assisting two refugee tailors in starting their own businesses.
Ken Heitland, PhD, Technical Director and OWWR Board Member, worked in start-up divisions for new lines of business at Sprint, Quest Diagnostics, and National American University. Taught the Capstone course for business BA at Ottawa University in KC for 10 years, helping students develop business plans and marketing strategies. Currently, Ken teaches courses for City Vision University. He holds the Six Sigma Black Belt in process analysis.
William D. Say, Communication Director. While Regional Manager with Men’s Wearhouse, he helped to initiate Dress for Success program for young men needing help with interviewing prep and professional attire on the job.
Vernita B. McMurtrey, BA Political Science, Development Director. Extensive experience in planning, volunteer engagement, major gift development and stewardship, family philanthropy and strategic planning including matters of governance. Passionate about helping nonprofits, family foundations and individual philanthropists improve their practices effectively and joyfully impacting the causes to which they are committed. Committed to community service.
Ann Say, BS, MBA, and retired Nursing Home Administrator, is an award-winning Hawaiian quilter. She also has extensive experience in refugee resettlement, beginning in the 1970s. Her refugee work includes scheduling volunteer staff and meeting the Operation Babylift Flights that passed through Hawaii in April, 1975. Adopting a Vietnamese Orphan, sponsoring a Vietnamese family, (read about this in the book, Angels Flying Out of Hell, by Bette James) assisting with the sponsoring of two families from Laos, assisting and sharing a home with a family from Namibia, Africa, and adopting a prison orphan from Calcutta, India. At present, she is obtaining supplies and teaching sewing to refugees in the Kansas City area. She is also assisting two tailors in starting their own business. Ann is Director of Education and an active volunteer with Once We Were Refugees.
Serves the Board as technology director for OWWR, and has worked in start-up divisions for new lines of business at Sprint, Quest Diagnostics, and National American University. Ken taught the Capstone course for business BA at Ottawa University in KC for 10 years, helping students develop business plans and marketing strategies. He holds the Six Sigma Black Belt in process analysis. Ken teaches for City Vision University and leads the Kauffman FastTrac program for OWWR students and others.