It seems impossible to categorize the important work that Kari Miller is doing with International Neighbors, a non-profit organization taking Charlottesville’s refugee population from survive to thrive. Is this Her Business because International Neighbors is Kari’s job and life work? Or is it her Her Heart because Kari’s passion to see the refugee community feel welcomed is her driving force? Or is it Her Town because Charlottesville is made better because of organizations like Kari’s. One thing is for sure—I feel lucky to have met her and am so proud to have her on The Thersday Series today. Kari, the work you are doing is inspiring to so many who feel passionate about an issue and are wondering if they can make a difference. (Kari’s Answer: You Can).
Her Business: International Neighbors
At what point in your life did you first learn about your line of work?
I worked for fifteen years in the Charlottesville City school system as a 2nd grade teacher and ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher. Many of my ESL students were refugees. I found it increasingly difficulty to educate these young minds when some of their basic needs were not being met. How could they learn well if they were not living well? I remember doing a home visit once to a refugee family who had lived in the states for over six years, and were still using buckets of water to bathe even though they had a fully functioning shower. No one had ever taken the time to show them what to do. I began to have conversations with some of my friends about what more could be done for this vulnerable community which makes up 6% of the Charlottesville population.
My time living in Thailand in the Peace Corps made me particularly empathetic to what it meant to be a stranger in a foreign land. I had to learn a new language and culture, something that would have been even more difficult had it not been for the wonderful Thai citizens who took me under their wings. I wanted to do the same for those coming to America from war-torn countries.
I began doing research on how to create a 501C3 and was completely overwhelmed, so I put that dream away for a time and continued teaching. But one night in November 2015, with my young children sleeping in the room across from mine, I pulled an all-nighter and completed my non-profit application in order to launch International Neighbors. We serve the refugee population, taking Charlottesville’s 243 new refugees each year from survive to thrive.
Your work is endless, I’m sure. What quotation or saying inspires and motivates you to do what you love?
I often say, “Leave every person and place better than you found it.” My family tries to live by that. I also subscribe to the belief that there is joy in the journey. We have to find joy in the process, not just in the solution, especially in our work with our refugee neighbors.
What would you tell yourself five or ten years ago that you wish you knew then?
I would also say to that younger version of myself that anything worth it is hard. You do what you can and find success even without a success everyday.
Who keeps you company in your work?
My refugee neighbors keep me company. I gain so much from knowing these incredible, resilient people. They are some of my closest friends.
My husband keeps me company. He realizes this is something I’ve talked about for a very long time; he’s really encouraged me to pursue this.
I also couldn’t do this without my incredible 8-person Board of Directors. They realize just how much need there is in the community. Our refugee families are vulnerable based on their lack of language. Members of the board aren’t afraid to wade into that discomfort of navigating some things on their behalf. They go to court to advocate for rights for refugee students, raise money for our annual fund, and find community partners. I simply could not do this without them.
What is the best piece of advice you’d give someone wanting to start a non-profit organization?
Go for it, go for it, go for it. No matter what, you can only push it off for so long. If there is a need that you see that isn’t being met and your passion aligns with it, then you MUST do it.
I sometimes wish my children hadn’t been so small when I started International Neighbors. It can be never ending and I wish I could separate my work and family life a little better. I need help learning when to turn it off. I’ve had to learn how to write grants, create programs, manage events and social media, and on and on. But it is so rewarding too, and had I waited until my children were older to do this, I would have missed out on helping so many.