By Megan McGill
Rochelle Heimann sits at her cubicle on the fourth floor of Center Mall in Omaha. She’s been here for only a year. This office looks very different than the one she had for the previous 10 years.
This cubicle doesn’t have an adjustable chair, a sink or any hair products. The floors are pristine, with no loose hairs scattered throughout the floor.
Before, as now, Heimann had numerous clients. But, the services she offers have changed drastically. Before, her job entailed helping her clients achieve their desired look. Now, having retired her comb and scissors, her job is to help them achieve their desired life.
The mom of three boys, and former hairdresser at Garbo’s Salon, works now as a career counselor at Lutheran Family Services. Heimann always knew she wanted to do mission work, but she could never have predicted being in the seat she is now. Heimann was instrumental in helping change the life of a young woman she hardly knew. In turn, that same young woman was instrumental in changing the entire course of Heimann’s life as well.
11 MONTHS EARLIER
Heimann had heard a rumor about a refugee project happening at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church. Kaela Volkmer, head of Catholic Social Teaching Ministry, was a part of a refugee project when she was young. She wanted to start up the project at St. Wenceslaus, but knew she didn’t have the time or the resources to do it. She needed someone else to lead it.
Heimann caught wind of the proposal and knew it was something she had to be a part of.
“I told my husband that I really wanted to do this,” she said. “I was surprised that he was on board right away. He usually doesn’t just go with things so I ran with it before he could change his mind.”
St. Wenceslaus received word that a family of six from Burma was coming to Omaha. Though the people at the Church didn’t know it at the time, this refugee family had a unique situation that made leaving the camps in Thailand in hopes of gaining a better life in a foreign land the least of their worries. They were warned that the family had serious health problems in case the parish wanted to reconsider. However, overwhelmingly the vote was to proceed with the project.
Heimann knew how much work and time this project would take up. She didn’t care. She had always wanted to do a mission, but this was something she could do without leaving the United States. So she agreed to lead it.
“I just felt like this was my chance,” she said.
LEVEL 1: Gathering Supplies and Getting the House Ready
Outside the parish stood a donated POD, a storage unit, where Heimann and other volunteers on the project took donations for the new family. It included the biblical verse “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Heimann remembers her excitement seeing the POD slowly fill up more and more each day.
“It was like Christmas every day,” she said.
Move-in day came and roughly 25 people volunteered their time to help move all the donated items and help set up the house. All this was achieved in only one day. There were so much extra stuff donated that the remaining donations were given to Lutheran Family Services. There were enough donations to fill three houses.
Heimann along with several others worked to get the house ready. Heimann even drove the big moving truck.
Heimann and other volunteers laid out sweat suits for each member of the family. It would be 40 degrees when the family arrived, a temperature that the women knew the family would not be properly dressed for.
When everything was packed away and ready Heimann came up with the idea of getting each family member a little gift that they could open when they arrived. Unfortunately though, the budget just couldn’t swing it. Then, the night before the family arrived an anonymous donation was made for $500.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I got to go shopping.”
After Heimann’s shopping spree, she began wrapping all the goodies she had carefully picked out for the family. These included: hair accessories, journals, pens, Chap Stick, Legos, nail polish, a doll, etc.
Everything was finally ready.
LEVEL 2: Meet the Family and Receive them to the Home
Roughly 40 people from St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, Lutheran Family Services and family of the refugee family waited outside one of the terminals at Eppley Airfield. They held signs reading,“Welcome” in English and in Karen: “Yer tu lo mu na.”
All those waiting had prepared for the refugee family from Burma for months. Most stood anxiously awaiting the arrival of complete strangers.
Heimann loves to organize and plan, but the idea of actually meeting with the refugee family was not something she was interested in. She welcomed the family at the airport, but she had no intention of being there when they settled into the house.
“My plan was never to really interact with the family, but Kaela Volkmer convinced me to go,” she said.
So she went. And from there she never looked back.
LEVEL 3: Weekly Check-Ups
Heimann was one of the project leaders. Four families, not including Heimann’s, were scheduled to meet with the refugee family every week for roughly four months. Two weeks into the sponsorship Heimann saw just how difficult it would be for the family to adjust to life in the United States.
The washer and dryer was a concept new to them. Heimann had to teach them to use both. Plumbing was also another foreign concept. Something as simple as a dresser was a challenge to explain to the family, who initially planned to leave all their clothes in their tubs.
The family started pouring cooking oil grease into the laundry room floor drain. Soon after the laundry room was backed up with septic water. Heimann will never forget the day the mother, Ha Day, motioned her into the bathroom. Ha Day wanted to show her something, but in the process Heimann noticed a trashcan and plastic bowl in the bathtub. After a few moments she realized the family had been filling the trash can with water and using the plastic bowl to dump water on their heads to bathe. They were not aware of the showerhead.
Heimann worked to explain these new objects to the family. Every time she came to visit, she went through their stuff and looked around to make sure that things were running as they should.
“These people want you to snoop,” she said. “They don’t know and they want to know. They want to fit in and not stand out.”
She noticed little things like the younger children hoarding food in their dressers. This was their attempt at hanging on to a resource that was so hard to come by in their old home. This made sense looking at the bare-boned family, with no color in their skinny faces. The five-year-old child was in size 2T in infants.
“When they all got here their skin literally hung on their bones,” she said.
However, helping the family adjust to life in America was really the least of her problems. The biggest battle had yet to come.
LEVEL 4: Not Planned
Low Htoo was one of the children in the family. However, she had come with her aunt, uncle and three cousins. She had left her family behind in need of better medical care. St. Wenceslaus was told that the 19-year-old was in remission. She had been treated for leukemia twice in Thailand. Rochelle and other volunteers were under the impression that Low Htoo was in the clear, so they focused their attention on her three cousins, who had a rare blood disease.
One day in May, Low Htoo had a follow-up doctor’s appointment she needed a ride to. Heimann volunteered to accompany her under the impression that it would be a quick check up.
It wasn’t. The doctor turned to Heimann and said that they had been telling Low Htoo and Ha Day that the young woman needed a bone marrow transplant. Without it, she was at risk of relapsing at any moment. Low Htoo and her aunt knew about this since September, but neither could understand what it meant, so they said nothing.
“By the grace of God, I went to that appointment,” Heimann said. “Who knows what would have happened if I wouldn’t have?”
Low Htoo was now not only fighting for a better life but for life in general. Unfortunately the cancer was back in July. The next months were filled with doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy. After months of searching for a match, recovering from the cancer, and prepping for the surgery, Low Htoo was finally able to have her transplant on Sept. 9. This made her the first refugee to receive a bone marrow transplant in the state of Nebraska.
The 19-year-old was in the hospital for a month after her transplant. When she was released Heimann knew Low Htoo couldn’t return home to her family. Because her family didn’t know English, it was no longer safe to stay with them. She needed a family to take her in, who was able to read her medications and understand the orders. After all, she was on approximately two dozen medications that were changing daily.
Heimann was determined to find a home for Low Htoo to recover. She sent out word, and eventually found the Poulin family, who happened to be one of the family care teams involved in the project. For the Poulins, taking in a stranger was nothing new. Mike and Cheryl Poulin worked as family teachers at Boy’s Town with their son and had previously taken in homeless immigrants in their previous home in Washington, D.C. To the Poulins taking in Low Htoo was an easy decision.
“If no one else will do it, we have to,” Cheryl Poulin said. “How can you not save someone’s life?”
Low Htoo arrived at the Poulin house in early October. Cheryl remembers seeing the look on the brave young woman’s face when she lay in the hospital bed after her transplant.
She turned to Cheryl and said, “Can I go home? Am I OK? Is the cancer gone?”
Heimann recalls seeing a similar brave and scared young woman,
“She’s a fighter,” Heimann said. “It’s a lonelier ride because Low Htoo didn’t have her mom to sit with her all day.”
The Poulins provide Low Htoo with a room, family support, help with her medication and food. However Cheryl said that they weren’t at it alone. The parish of St. Wenceslaus still provides them with ongoing support.
Many people said they could never do what the Poulin family is doing now. Cheryl disagrees. She said it is something that anyone can do. Her family isn’t rich and lives simply.
“The fact is we had enough space in our home and space in our hearts to do this,” she said.
Today Low Htoo is better than she has ever been. She is keeping track of her own medication and gaining more independence. Rochelle continues to visit her and is amazed at the progress and transformation the young woman has made.
If everything goes according to plan Low Htoo will be returning to her uncle’s friend, Lah Lah, next week. Lah Lah lives in Omaha and acts as Low Htoo’s “surrogate mother” as Heimann refers to her. In the Poulin home hangs a calendar, marking off the days that Low Htoo can return to her. She is excited to see that the countdown is almost up.
Despite the generosity of this Omaha family, the Poulins recognize the huge part that Heimann had in making Low Htoo’s transplant and recovery so smooth.
“Rochelle made this all happen. Low Htoo never would have had the bone marrow transplant without her,” Cheryl said. “She is such a go-getter.”
Three months after the family arrived, Heimann got a call from Lutheran Family Services, a non-profit multi-care agency. The agency asked her to work for them. Heimann agreed and for six months worked part time talking to churches about sponsoring a family like the one she headed at St. Wenceslaus. However, she knew this job was not for her.
It was missing something.
The one thing she told Volkmer she didn’t want to be involved with is the one thing that she was missing most- interacting and building relationships with refugees.
So for the past three months, Heimann has been doing what she loves. As a career counselor at Lutheran Family Services, she able to work and engage with the people benefitting from the agency. She helps refugees find jobs similar to the ones they had back home.
Some may say that Heimann helped save Low Htoo’s life. Without her, the transplant Low Htoo needed to survive was not likely to happen.
However, Heimann is humbled to even be a part of Low Htoo’s recovery.
“I’m very honored to just be a blip in this young lady’s life,” she said. “God did some amazing things for her.”
So for now, Heimann sits at her cubicle in a chair she would have never anticipated that she would be in. This chair is worlds different than the one she had at Garbo’s. Pictures of family surround her workspace and a picture of another member of her family. It’s of Low Htoo, the young woman, who is a big reason why Heimann is sitting in this chair.
With her faith close to her Heimann knew that there were no coincidences or accidents in Low Htoo’s journey.
“There’s a reason she’s here,” she said. “God orchestrated some big stuff for her.”
Perhaps the same could be said for Heimann. It is not likely that she was merely at the right place at the right time, but more plausible that big plans were orchestrated for her.
Heimann helped this refugee family find a new life, especially Low Htoo. In return, they did the same for her.
When asked if she missed her job at Garbo’s, she said laughing, “Not at all.”