Helping Uprooted Families

FOR BAY AREA-BASED DONNA ELDRIDGE ’76, delivering furniture to a family of Afghan refugees in her truck is just another day. But for these uprooted families who have landed in the U.S. with nothing, her services are invaluable and ultimately, life-altering.

Eldridge’s refugee outreach work began in 2016, during a period when her youngest daughter was applying to colleges and the reality of becoming an empty nester loomed. Then Donald Trump won the presidential election, and, as for many others, Eldridge’s world was flipped on its head.

“After the election I was left with this strong desire to take action,” she says. “I wanted to do something that would help people.”

Eldridge, who has valued the Non ut sibi mission since before her Taft days, had previously been involved in a holiday giving drive through her daughters’ school. When she discovered that the woman who organized the drive needed help resettling refugees through her work with Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay (JFCS East Bay), Eldridge felt called to the task.

“JFCS works under an umbrella organization, HIAS [originally founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society], which helps refugees resettle in safety and freedom,” Eldridge explains. “They needed local volunteers to help resettle refugees, most of whom are Afghan or Iraqi translators here on special immigrant visas.” Afghans who worked with U.S. personnel in Afghanistan are eligible for a special immigrant visa to bring their families to the States.

Her work started out with furniture delivery—getting refugees items such as beds, couches, and bath and kitchen essentials— but quickly grew more personal as she helped families cope with the often overwhelming reality of their new lives in America. These days, Eldridge does everything from driving refugees to doctors’ appointments to helping parents navigate the unfamiliar school systems.

“There’s a big Afghan community in the East Bay, and within that there’s a huge range of education and cultural experiences among the refugees,” explains Eldridge. “Some, mostly the men, speak fluent English and have major careers; others have come straight from Afghan villages and can’t even say hello in English.”

Though she has always valued service work, her day-to-day used to look quite different. Originally from Darien, Connecticut, Eldridge graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1981 with a degree in plant science, and then went on to get her M.A. in landscape design from the Conway School. From there she launched a successful career, cofounding Bay Area landscape architecture firm Cleaver Design Associates (CDA) with her husband, Bob Cleaver, in 1996. When they started a family, she scaled back on her full-time hours at CDA to focus on raising her two daughters. And while she still helps run the business side of things at CDA, Eldridge’s heart is in her work with JFCS.

“I’ve always been the kind of person who gets pleasure from helping others,” she shares. “My mom was the same way. I learned it from her.”

That said, the work of resettling refugees is far from easy, and some days it’s impossible for Eldridge to feel fulfilled in the presence of so much hardship.

“It’s incredibly difficult to see families here, knowing that they have left so many loved ones behind in war-torn places,” she says. As for the future, Eldridge hopes to continue making a difference for refugees resettling in the East Bay.

“Seeing a family settle into their new home, feeling safe and reassured that they made the right decision to come to the U.S. and try for a new life—that’s the most rewarding part of this work,” she says.

—Carola Lovering ’07