WAKEFIELD — For Ava Grosso, a senior at The Prout School, being of service to others in need has been her passion for many years, from cooking food at a local soup kitchen to assembling bags of necessities for the less fortunate.
When it became known to her through another family in the Prout community — with connections to the military — that approximately 14,000 refugees from Afghanistan currently housed on a base in Wisconsin were heading into the fall and winter with little more than the clothes they could carry when they evacuated their country weeks before, Grosso was inspired to take action.
“Knowing what struggles many of the Afghanistan refugees had faced in the past months, I wanted to do anything and everything I could to help,” Grosso said.
She knew that the cold weather would arrive early at Fort McCoy, the Wisconsin base midway between Milwaukee and Minneapolis, where the refugees were being housed while awaiting resettlement in the U.S. She also surmised that many families both in and around The Prout School would most likely have spare winter items in the back of their closets that they could donate to help keep these new residents warm as the temperature dips in the coming weeks.
“I knew that I could bring the community together to make this happen,” said Grosso.
She first approached Prout School Principal David Estes about starting a clothing drive to help the refugees and immediately discovered another connection to the military base where the donations will be sent.
“We were proud to support Ava’s initiative,” Estes said. “The school supported Ava and [Prout parent] Angela Slitt’s efforts by advertising and promoting the charity.”
The school also worked with the co-moderators of the Student Council Joe Tarasevich and Mallory Lepere Conde to include donations as one part of the class competitions during Prout’s Fall Spirit Week, garnering contributions from 75 percent of the school community within five days.
“As a veteran myself I was able to personally connect to the moral obligation our country has to those who supported our armed forces abroad in the name of freedom. I also had trained at Fort McCoy and could envision exactly where the nearly 13,000 Afghan evacuees were billeting,” said Estes, a former Major in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Grosso was chosen to oversee the campaign.
“I love every part about giving back to others,” she said. “When provided the opportunity to administrate this project, I was beyond excited.”
Grosso also worked on the project with sophomore Ben Slitt, junior Noah Slitt and their mother Angela Slitt; Ron Renzi, director of Student Support; and Sharon DeLuca, director of Admissions.
Angela Slitt first told Grosso’s mom Katie, a family friend, about the growing need for clothing for refugees at Fort McCoy that she was hearing about from her husband Andrew.
Andrew Slitt, a Class of ’88 Bishop Hendricken grad, who now serves as a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve JAG Corps after eight years of active duty in the Army, had heard from a former colleague, now stationed at Fort McCoy, about the need for clothing for the approximately 13,000-15,000 refugees being housed there temporarily.
He relayed this to Angela, who remains in contact with that colleague’s wife online, and the Prout initiative to help was born.
“Living in the Northeast, we certainly have those kinds of materials that people in a cold climate could use,” Andrew Slitt said, knowing that this is the kind of service project that Prout would embrace.
“Mr. Estes could not have been more enthusiastic with his support and getting us the space that we needed to store the U-Haul trailer and helping us to staff it in the mornings and afternoons when parents drop off their donations. It’s nice to get that mission-oriented support from a Catholic school.”
Grosso found that in introducing the campaign — Operation Warm Welcome — to her peers, many of them were unaware of the immediate need now faced by refugees who were recently half a world away as they appeared in news coverage of their dangerous evacuation from Kabul, Afghanistan.
“However, by donating and being a part of the campaign, many of them were able to learn more about the problems at hand and gain a better understanding of our world today,” Grosso said.
In addition to encouraging donations from the Prout community, Angela Slitt said that the donations received from Msgr. Clarke School, the University of Rhode Island — where she works as a professor of pharmacology — and a local mosque were also greatly appreciated.
Her son Noah said the service project is a positive opportunity, not only for the Prout community, but for the Catholic community across Rhode Island to clothe and welcome the stranger to a new land.
“I think it’s a very good opportunity through this Christian work to help all these refugees because as Christians we are entrusted by God to help out the poor,” Noah Slitt said.
Estes said the Prout clothing drive campaign for refugees honors the diocese’s commitment to service, especially during its 150th anniversary year.
“This project not only aligns with Catholic Social Teaching but also with the Diocese of Providence’s long-standing Immigration and Refugee Services. As such, Operation Warm Welcome will be Prout’s entry for consideration for the diocese’s 150 Acts of Charity,” Estes said.
Andrew Slitt said he intends to drive the donations collected by Prout out to Fort McCoy, accompanied by Angela, Noah and Ben, in the next few weeks.
Grosso said she hopes that Operation Warm Welcome will leave an indelible imprint on all those who have participated in collecting and making donations, as well as on those who receive them.
“This project was a wake-up call,” Grosso said.
“It reminded our school community of the reality of our world and its need for our help. My hope is that by the end of all this at least one little girl, one elderly man, or dare I say every evacuee making the trip from country to country, receives the warm clothes they need in this time of transition; to help them one day live a beautiful life here in America.”
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