Pat Tappmeyer, One Volunteer’s Story
Having fled war, persecution, torture, with only the things they can carry, living on the streets or in refugee camps, less than one percent of the world’s refugees are resettled. They arrive in San Antonio with nothing. Imagine arriving in a foreign land with nothing, and no family or friends to rely on.
This is the story of how a breast cancer survivor’s gratitude and her desire to understand and help other cultures turned Pat Tappmeyer into The Furniture Lady: a woman with a mission to assist San Antonio’s legally resettled refugees. Pat was a second-grade classroom teacher at Colonies North who went on international mission trips with her church, University United Methodist Church (UUMC). The mission trips not only were an opportunity to give service but showed Pat how people live and survive in the world. Following cancer treatment and remission, Pat was interested in doing more to help others in need.
Pat went through ESL certification and initially had 9 ESL 2nd graders in her class with 6 different languages. While teaching ESL at Colonies North summer school, Pat remembers one particular boy from Central Africa who came to school 5 days in a row in the same clothes and had hygiene issues.
After talking with the child about how he might improve his hygiene, she learned that the family had no soap, no money, no clothes other than those on their backs. Pat got donated clothes and bought soap.
When she went to deliver the clothes, she saw that the family of 9-10 had no furniture in a crowded, dark apartment. She put an ad in her church’s paper and got many donations, including a lamp which Pat delivered along with a sofa. When she went back to deliver more items, she asked the family why they didn’t turn on the lamp. They didn’t know how to plug in the lamp or turn it on. When Pat turned on the lamp, the family was amazed! They encircled and sang one of their traditional songs to her. It was a very moving and mission affirming moment.
Word spread through her church about the need for furniture and household items. Eventually Pat and a retired principal, who was also a member of UUMC, started their furniture and household items donations and delivery in earnest.
First, the vast influx of refugees whom Pat helped were from Nepal where some families had lived in refugee camps for 20 years. In time there were refugees from many other countries. Pat was fascinated with learning about each culture. In one week’s time, she would travel around the world. As a way of showing their appreciation, refugees would invite her to participate in their important cultural practices: an Eritrean coffee ceremony, an Iraqi meal, a Nepali baby naming party. Pat would marvel at how each family would recreate their culture in their apartments in San Antonio.
Pat, The Furniture Lady, remarked how her ESL 2nd graders often have very mixed levels of school content mastery. While language acquisition may have come more slowly, math was a different story. She had students from Tanzania whose families had been resettled in refugee camps for 32 years. They had previously received no schooling. She remembers several Tanzanian students in her class who were so motivated to learn and master math facts, out of gratitude for being safe and the opportunity to be in school. They were the math stars of the class.
Pat told repeated horror stories of families who fled political upheaval and strife and their gratefulness to be safe in San Antonio. Once seeing an African man who looked very depressed, holding his head in his hands, Pat asked him how he was doing. He replied he was doing just fine. When Pat asked him, “what’s the best thing about San Antonio,” he replied, “I can sleep, I don’t have to be worried about my family being blown up by a bomb or shot”.
While legally resettled refugees do receive a limited amount of financial help through their resettlement agency when they first arrive, they like to save those funds to pay for essential items like a used car for work transportation, or to apply to future months of rent and utilities should they be jobless. Therefore, they appreciate receiving donated furniture and goods, instead of spending precious money to buy them.
Despite at times looking a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies with an overflowing load of furniture roped together, Pat and her truck have continued to collect and deliver furniture and household items for over 13 years to each new wave of refugees making San Antonio their home. Pat and her truck are probably responsible for furnishing thousands of refugee apartments in San Antonio, and this is why she is affectionately called The Furniture Lady.