- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - When she saw the photo of the little boy, hands tucked near his tummy as if he’d fallen asleep, Sara Gilliam felt like you did.

Heartbroken and helpless.

She was haunted by the drowning of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy fleeing with his parents and brother on an overcrowded boat that capsized Sept. 2 before reaching shore, his father the only survivor.

“Like millions of other people, I was seized by that image,” said 38-year-old Sara. “And I really felt like I needed to do something.”

Sara is a mom. Coltrane is 6. Otis is nearly 2.

Sara and her husband John and the kids star in the family Christmas card this year — Coltrane standing on top of the coffee table in his PJ top, toys strewn about as if the ceiling had opened and rained down wooden blocks and rubber balls.

“We’ve embraced the chaos, basically,” Sara said over coffee and a muffin last week, taking a break from her part-time job at the Cooper Foundation. “Until I met John, I never thought I’d have children and I never thought I’d have boys — and no one is more surprised than me that this is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Being a mom, she means.

Loving and parenting her sons. Loving her friends’ kids, loving kids, period.

Which helps explain why Sara is leaving her family for 10 days and going to Greece next month.

She is packing her clothes and her toothbrush in a small carry-on and transporting four suitcases, 50 pounds each, filled with baby carriers to the port of Athens, where she and other volunteers for Carry the Future will give the sturdy packs to refugees with small children.

They will help moms and dads who have traveled by boat to this coastal stopover by giving them a way to more easily carry their children through the Balkans to asylum in Western Europe, a journey of hundreds of miles that can take weeks.

Much of it on foot.

“We will basically have two or three minutes with each family to explain what a carrier is and show them how to use it,” Sara said.

The Lincoln Journal Star (https://bit.ly/1OLZk7I ) reports that she discovered Carry the Future just six weeks ago, after she saw a link to a story about the organization on Facebook. The nonprofit had been started by a mom in California who had also been stricken by Aylan’s death and began a fundraising campaign to collect $2,500 and 100 baby carriers to send to her family in Greece to distribute.

And a movement was born.

“What I loved about this is its grassroots action at its best,” said Sara, who spent several weeks in refugee camps researching and writing as a college student.

“It’s perfect for someone like me who can’t leave her family for two years, but I know how to fit a baby carrier and collect things in my community.”

Sara had already connected with women in Lincoln who were collecting carriers to donate to the organization when she got an email Tuesday.

“It basically said, ‘Are you ready to go to Athens?’”

She’ll fly to Washington, D.C., to pick up her allotment of baby carriers and meet her team in Athens, a group of eight women, including a homeschooling mom who runs a dairy farm with her husband, an Iraqi war vet, and an American living in the United Arab Emirates.

Everyone will spend their days fitting carriers — as many as 9,000 refugees arrive daily — and each will have additional responsibilities, too. Sara’s official title is Mama Bear.

“It’s the person that makes sure everyone is eating and drinking and getting hugs and emotional support.”

Sara, the daughter of Jim and Mary Pipher, volunteered for the role.

She laughs. “I do feel as the child of two psychologists that it is my perfect role to be the cheerleader.”

Sara’s mom is also a best-selling author who wrote, “The Middle of Everywhere: Helping Refugees enter the American Community.”

She was away at college when her mom was researching the book, Sara said, but got to know the refugees who filled its pages when she returned to Lincoln.

“Now they’re family.”

For her, this trip is about more than simply relieving the tired arms and sore shoulders of weary parents.

It’s about sending a bigger message. “This is saying to them you are loved, you are wanted, you are safe, you are going to find a home.”

Sara will leave her home on Jan. 13.

John will be in charge of their new puppy and their two little boys.

Until then, Sara will be busy.

She and the Lincoln moms are decorating donation boxes for carriers. They’ve already set boxes out at three sites — Babyworks, Circle Me, and the Ager Play Center.

Donated carriers can be new or gently used. No metal frames, no slings or ring-type carriers. (Suitable brands include Ergo, Baby Bjorn, Snugli, Infantino.)

They are also seeking new hats and mittens, socks and slippers, small hand warmers and high protein snack packs (like Clif Kidz bars) for Sara to distribute in Greece.

And Sara wants to fill her pack with small toys for the children, too — bouncy balls or tiny LEGO people, the kind Coltrane loves to build.

She’s been showing her older son maps, Sara said, so he knows where she is going and why.

She’s explained that refugees are people who have to leave home because their homes are unsafe.

That the children are children just like him, and Mommy is going to try and help them.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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