2017-03-16 / News

Governor touched by Lawn student’s letter


Lawn School seventh-grader Abby Wagner at the Jamestown library with the March 9 edition of the Providence Journal, which included her letter. 
PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN Lawn School seventh-grader Abby Wagner at the Jamestown library with the March 9 edition of the Providence Journal, which included her letter. PHOTO BY ANDREA VON HOHENLEITEN A Lawn School student’s passionate advocacy for refugees has caught the eye of the highest office in Rhode Island.

Seventh-grader Abby Wagner wrote a letter about how Gov. Gina Raimondo’s essay contest inspired her to raise money for refugees in the Ocean State. The letter was published on the commentary page of the March 9 edition of the Providence Journal.

The contest, titled “Governor for a Day,” is conducted in March in honor of Women’s History Month. Middle school girls in Rhode Island are invited to write a 500-word essay about what they would do if they had Raimondo’s job for the day. Last spring, Wagner submitted an essay on the plight of the state’s refugee population.

“If I were governor for a day, I would encourage and advocate the idea of volunteering at refugee centers,” Abby said.

She didn’t win the 2016 contest, but was selected as one of the five finalists and attended a brunch with Raimondo on Election Day in November. Following her meeting with the governor, Abby said she was encouraged do more than just write — she decided to volunteer.

Abby got her chance to make a difference last month when she met a family of refugee children from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A Maine church that her friend’s family attends in the Pine Tree State had adopted the family to help them migrate to the United States. The four children were between the ages of 6 and 15 when they fled the central African country without their parents.

According to Abby’s letter, she went sledding with the family and helped them with their English homework. Meeting the family further inspired Wagner to raise money for refugees like them.

A few weeks later, Abby hosted a bonfire at her house during President’s Day weekend. She encouraged her friends to bring gift cards to Stop & Shop, Walmart and CVS. At the party, Abby spoke about meeting the Congolese family and the hardships African refugees face when immigrating to the United States. Before researching her essay, she had no idea how difficult it was for refugees to flee their country.

“I thought they just hopped on a plane and came over here,” Abby said. “I didn’t know people were fleeing without their parents or came over in rafts. I wanted to teach my friends about the experiences they have to go through. If people knew those experiences, they would be more open to helping refugees.”

Abby raised $200 in gift cards during the party, which were then donated to the Dorcas International Institute, a Providence-based organization that helps refugees settle in the United States.

The institute helps newcomers adjust to life in Rhode Island by providing basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, employment and education. Dorcas also offers English classes, assistance with green card applications and citizenship clinics.

Abby’s mother, Michelle, said her daughter received a tour of the Dorcas facility when she dropped off the gift cards, providing her a firsthand look at the volunteers in action.

“We didn’t want to just drop them off at a front desk,” Michelle said. “We wanted to speak to somebody and say why Abby did all the work.”

Abby originally had written her letter as a thank-you note to the governor for inspiring her actions. After sending it to Raimondo’s office, however, the governor’s assistant encouraged Abby to send the piece to the Providence Journal.

Seeing her writing published in the state’s largest newspaper was “really great.”

“I thought it was so cool,” she said. “I’m doing two things I am passionate about: writing and helping refugees.”

Following its publication, Raimondo wrote about Abby’s piece on her official Facebook page. “This is exactly what I hoped the contest would do: Inspire girls to think creatively about how they can be leaders who affect positive change in their communities,” she wrote.

Back on the island, Abby said her piece received a positive reaction from her friends, family and teachers. Her mother said Narragansett Avenue attorney Emily Murphy read Abby’s letter and asked her to stop by the office to speak with lawyers about refugees.

Michelle Wagner said she is delighted and impressed with her daughter’s efforts.

“I have never been more proud of her than hearing her talk about it,” she said. “She goes for what she believes in and what she wants. And she follows through, which is really a nice quality.”

Abby plans to write another essay for this year’s contest, but has yet to select a subject. Her family also is considering mentoring a refugee family through the Dorcas International Institute.

Abby’s letter

My name is Abby Wagner. As a sixth-grader I participated in the 2016 Women’s History Month, or “Governor for a Day” essay contest, run by the Office of Gov. Gina Raimondo. In my essay I wrote about visiting and volunteering with refugees. Even though I didn’t win, writing the essay has inspired me to follow through with some of the things I said I would do as governor for a day.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to meet four refugee siblings from the Congo. We went sledding, played games and then I helped one of them with English writing homework. After that weekend, I decided to start small with my plans to help more refugees and invited a group of friends over to hear about refugees and encouraged them to bring gift cards or money. At the get-together, I gave a speech about the Dorcas Institute, the services they provide, and my personal experiences. I ended up raising $200 in gift cards for groceries for Dorcas Institute.

I am thankful that Gov. Raimondo provided me with the opportunity to think about issues that are important to me. I’m not sure I would have been inspired to take action if I hadn’t participated in the essay contest, and I know that this year, the governor’s office will have another contest. I encourage every Rhode Island middle school girl like me to participate.

— Providence Journal, March 9, 2017

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