by Paula Redmann | Photography: Lea Black Photography
Being part of a community is essential to being human.
Just ask Leah Hargrove. Her childhood, her education, and her experiences have all led Leah to Bismarck, North Dakota and to the launch of Bismarck Global Neighbors, a fellowship and support network for folks who aren’t from around here.
Leah grew up in a diverse community in North Carolina.
“My school was one third white, one third black, and one third Lumbee Native American. It’s all I knew. My mother was the director of International Studies at a local university. Our home was continuously filled with students from Japan, China, and other parts of the world. As a child, I found it all very normal, extremely interesting, and it was a very fortunate way to grow up,” says Leah.
Not surprising, really, that Leah went on to college to receive degrees in International Studies and French. Little did she know (or perhaps, maybe she did?) how those skills would come into play.
Leah moved to Grand Forks in 2012 with her husband, Zack, for his career with the National Weather Service.
“He said, ‘Give me two years in North Dakota, and we’ll be gone,’ and that was six years ago.”
It was in Grand Forks that she became a mentor with Global Friends Coalition, an organization that assists refugees.
“I could speak French, so I became a mentor to a family from the Ivory Coast. They had been displaced because of war. I’m still friends with them today. It’s such a gift when the mentoring moves to lifelong friendship,” shares Leah.
Leah and family moved to Bismarck as a career move for Zack in 2014. Today, that family includes Ethan, age five, and Susannah, age two, and a third child due in November. After moving to Bismarck, Leah started conversations with other families who had an interest in the international community and in helping refugees—people relocating due to war or persecution—and immigrants—those choosing to live permanently in a foreign country.
Obstacles that refugees and immigrants face when finding themselves in North Dakota can range from the very complex, such as speaking English, establishing citizenship, or getting medical care; to the very simple, including getting a ride to an appointment or finding clothing for a child.
“I’ve talked to lots of moms with kids, and it seems they need more support due to isolation and lack of community connections. The father or husband in the family may be working, but the moms and kids find themselves very alone here. I figured I could help,” explains Leah.
So, three years and thousands of conversations later, Leah established Bismarck Global Neighbors. This group works to help refugees and immigrants establish roots and relationships with individuals and other care-giving agencies, to foster English language learning, and to decipher the rules, regulations, and webs of “how to, what to, and where to” in a community.
“We want to not only welcome our new neighbors to this community, but to also learn from them,” she says. “The sharing of cultural experiences is so enriching, and we do that in a couple different ways.”
The first is Bismarck Global Neighbors mentoring program. To be a volunteer mentor, one needs to commit to one hour a week for six months.
“It takes time to establish a trust and a friendship, especially for those who have experienced something traumatic, so we ask for a six-month commitment.”
Leah says there are no age or special ability requirements to be a mentor. A mentor can be a single person, retired person, or college student. Bismarck Global Neighbors provides the training. Mentors must complete an application and agree to a background check.
“Whatever it takes to be a good friend is what it takes to be a mentor,” says Leah. “Be a good listener and be kind. Just getting together for conversation or play dates with children is a wonderful experience for everyone. Talking and sharing leads to understanding.”
Another way Bismarck Global Neighbors helps their clients connect with the community is through special events and gatherings.
“We have potlucks and festivals. We participate in World Refugee Day. These gatherings are meant to be social and educational and allow Bismarck residents the opportunity to meet their new neighbors and learn about them and their culture.” says Leah. “We help people access services, friends, and their community. It’s a simple concept, really. We’re all neighbors.”
Click here to find out how to mentor, volunteer, or donate.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule Leah Hargrove to visit with your organization, service club, or group of friends.
Paula Redmann is the Community Relations Manager for Bismarck Parks and Recreation District. She married her high school sweetheart, Tom. They have two grown sons, Alex and Max.