At the start of the pandemic, when everyone was isolated, Allison Geisler and her kids were spending a lot of time outdoors. She says they frequently saw two older women walking together in the neighborhood but they didn’t speak English and the most she could do was wave.
“We would kind of sign language to them and go back and forth from there, like smiling and pointing and waving,” Geisler said.
‘THE FRIENDSHIP JUST BUILT FROM THERE’
Over the next few weeks, she says she tried to figure out which language they spoke and determined they were speaking Dinka, which is native to South Sudan. That process took a few months because she says Google Translate didn’t recognize the language. She tried to pick up a few words to communicate with them, simple words like sister, brother and mother.
“We started saying words in their language, and the friendship just built from there,” she said.
The two women are relatives and live in separate houses. One of the women had been telling her family members that Geisler was like a daughter to her. This woman, whose name is Niopiol Ring, actually lived pretty close to Geisler in a house with nine other family members. Geisler’s children call the woman Grandma N. The other woman who walks around the neighborhood is Adut Deng.
One day when Geisler and her kids were on a walk, one of Ring's grandchildren was playing outside. Geisler met the child’s mother Alual, who Ring's daughter-in-law and also lived in the house.
“She's like, ‘Oh my gosh, they've been telling me so many stories and telling me how you're their daughter. You're welcome in their house anytime you want to,’” Geisler said. “My kids would play with their kids, we would go inside and have chai.”
Through those early conversations, she learned a lot about the family. That house was home to a paternal grandmother, a mother, a father, an uncle, three daughters and three boys, which make up the Ring family.
‘WE WANTED TO GIVE MOST OF IT BACK TO OUR COMMUNITY’
After coming over a few times, Geisler said she noticed there were some things around the house that needed fixing. The two parents worked full-time jobs and then some — the dad was also driving for mobile food delivery services late at night — which left them little time to work on the home.
“There were some things kind of in their house that my husband and I can help them with,” Geisler said. “My husband and I are very handy in the house. He's a DIYer. He does electrical and plumbing and all that kind of stuff, and I'm more on the design side and organization side. So I see something that isn't functional, and I can make a space functional again.”
Geisler says she asked if she and her husband could help them out around the house and the family agreed.
She said as they were working on the house, they noticed a few more projects they could help with or at least facilitate.
“We would do an outlet and realize there's some serious electrical issues that could potentially cause harm,” she said. “There was like wires that were singed behind the wall and things like that that maybe they just didn't know were there or whoever did the electrical before them had messed it up.”
There was also a colony of yellow jackets that had taken up residency in an exterior wall on the house, half of the stove was broken, the dishwasher wasn’t functional and the fridge was too small for the number of people living in the home.
Geisler said she and her husband helped pay for the pest control company that dealt with the yellow jackets and covered some of the cost of the electrical repairs using their stimulus checks from the federal government’s COVID-19 relief program.
“We felt pretty strongly that we wanted to give most of it back to our community, and this kind of happened at the right time to where it lined up with that,” she said.
From there, she said she started putting calls out to community members on social media to support the family as well, either by giving what they had that they might not have needed anymore or by offering money.
Facebook Marketplace has also been a godsend, Geisler said, because she can spend some time scouring the listings for free or cheap things they might need in the house. Geisler has also documented the journey so far in an Instagram story and on Facebook, posting about specific needs.
Through social media and donations from other families, Geisler said she was able to help the family get a new fridge, a new oven and a microwave. So far, they’ve also managed to help refurnish some shared bedrooms in the home supported by donations and helped recarpet some rooms.
“That was really kind of cool that we noticed that other people in the community are also behind this family, that they want them to succeed,” she said. “We probably got 100 to 150 people that had things that I could use for this family that they wanted to donate. … If someone said they had a queen mattress, then we would get a bed frame from someone else, And we would take it to their house.”
The oldest granddaughter also recently graduated high school and headed off to college this fall. Geisler said, with the help of some other community members and people from her church, they were able to send her off with things like bedding, a microwave and a television.
Some individuals offered services at a discounted rate or for free, like the pest control guy who helped handle the yellow jackets and the plumber who installed the dishwasher.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
There’s still work to do, Geisler said, and she keeps a spreadsheet that tracks progress and future goals.
“I think it's kept going because of the momentum that has been created,” she said. “We want to try to reach out to our neighbors, and serve our neighbors whenever we can and get our kids involved.”
People who want to help support the family can email Geisler at email@example.com. They host regular "serve days" where interested individuals can share their services to help work on the house.
Geisler said she hopes this will encourage people to help out in their neighborhood where they can.
“I think it's just like a lot of people around here are waiting for neighbors to ask them for help,” she said. “You kind of have to be proactive and see how you can add value to someone's family and just go ask them if you can do that.”
It’s easy to complain about someone’s yard being overgrown, she said, but it’s fruitless.
“Why don't you go over and learn their story and offer to mow their yard once, and then maybe you might get a better idea of what's going on,” she said.