Kelli Czaykowsky was attending a school board meeting back in 2010 when she heard about a group of Clarkston refugees pleading for help getting their children into a better school.
As a mother of five school-age children at the time, their stories resonated with her.
The next day, Czaykowsky headed over to Clarkston’s refugee community. What she saw looked like a Third World country — unfurnished apartments where rats and other vermin had taken up residence, kids sitting on dirty floors, refrigerators with little to no food.
“You didn’t really feel their pain because, despite their living conditions, they were smiling,” Czaykowsky remembered recently.
She spent the day there, talking through a translator to whomever she could find. Families were from faraway places like Burma, Iraq and the Congo.
They didn’t want food or clothing, they told Czaykowsky. They wanted access to a good education for their children.
At home that night, Czaykowsky couldn’t sleep.
“My heart was just full,” she said.
Czaykowsky returned to Clarkston, this time to take names of the people who wanted to get their children into school. Of the 50 names she collected, she secured enough scholarships to provide 12 children enrollment at the Duluth Adventist Christian School, the same school her children were enrolled in at the time.
Since then, Friends of Refugees Providing Education and Empowerment — or F.R.E.E., as the nonprofit founded by Czaykowsky is known — has helped more than 100 refugee children enroll in school.
Czaykowsky will tell you it would not have been possible without an army of volunteers like Allen Clark and his wife, Gerry, who have hosted three refugee kids in their Peachtree Corners home, and Phillip Benson, a retired school district employee, who stepped up to transport the kids to school and back.
“I love the kids. I absolutely love them,” said Clark. “Plus it gives me something to do in my retirement years.”
Others say it wouldn’t have happened without Czaykowsky, an occupational therapist, who has supplemented foundation grants and other donations with her own money to keep the nonprofit afloat.
But the success FREE has enjoyed has come with a price.
Czaykowsky estimates that it costs about $200,000 a year to run the program, which in addition to private school scholarships, provides kids with shoes and backpacks stuffed with school supplies each year. F.R.E.E. also arranges for eyeglasses, medical and dental care and transportation to summer camp for about 100 kids each summer.
Each year, they have enrolled scores of kids in school. Last year, there were 93. This year, 65 are enrolled in the program at five different schools and universities.
Since 2010, five have graduated from high school, and four have gone on to college. Of the four, one graduated from college in 2019 with a degree in education. Of the other three currently in college, one is seeking a degree in dentistry, one in the medical field and one a degree in theology and music.
But now, Czaykowsky is worried.
Unless she can secure $30,000 by May to pay outstanding tuition balances, her students’ transcripts won’t be released, and they won’t be able to take final exams.
She is distressed but she understands.
“It’s business,” she said.
And so I asked her, why not just help enroll them in public schools?
Czaykowsky said they had tried that, but kids were being bullied and if they weren’t, they said, classrooms were so chaotic, it made it nearly impossible to learn anything.
There are a lot of people who will find it difficult to believe that there are no good public schools in metro Atlanta, myself included, but Czaykowsky and her families maintain private school is more conducive to learning. It’s even harder when kids, who must overcome language barriers, are still reeling from trauma experienced in the war-torn country they fled.
And then, there is this. Czaykowsky said she has been criticized even by some family members for her outreach to refugees when there are so many native-born Americans in need.
“I think if people would take away their biases, they’d see that these children are ours, too,” she said. “And their parents are working, paying taxes like the rest of us, but they need our help. All of us need help sometimes.”
By helping these students, Czaykowsky hopes she’s teaching them to help others. The reward you get is priceless, she said.
“It’s a feeling you get that money can’t buy.”
If you want to know what that feels like, log onto freerefugees.org and give. Czaykowsky’s students need your help.
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