Shared from the 8/21/2017 San Antonio Express eEdition

Helping others makes birthday girl happy

9-year-old enjoys day at refugee center

William Luther / San Antonio Express-News

Hartlee Menn (center) helps fill backpacks with school supplies at the Center for Refugee Services. Hartlee, who is a third-grader at the Geneva School of Boerne, decided to spend part of her ninth birthday on Wednesday donating time and supplies to the center.

When Hartlee Menn arrived at the site of her ninth birthday celebration Wednesday, she received gifts she’ll never forget. The presents weren’t wrapped in shiny paper or topped with bows, but rather were smiles and words of thanks from refugees living in San Antonio’s resettlement community.

Crowded into a hall at the Center for Refugee Services, Hartlee, surrounded by friends and family, was delighted as she heard Josephine Toundamje from Chad talk with pride about becoming a U.S. citizen. Hartlee beamed at Toundamje’s granddaughter, who weaved in and around her group on a tricycle. And she felt joy for her friend Sophia Namvar, whose eyes widened when a teen from Afghanistan spoke Farsi, just as Sophia’s father does.

Then Hartlee and her entourage filed into a classroom and set down 30 backpacks stuffed with school supplies to be delivered later — Hartlee’s birthday present to children in the Northwest Side community.

“Hartlee has always had a missionary heart,” her mother, Stephanie Menn, said.

This was the second birthday that the Geneva School of Boerne third-grader has dedicated to help children she’s never met. Last year, Hartlee raised money for a Salvadoran family in need of bunk beds. Her latest gift of goodwill came after a family friend talked about the thousands of refugees Catholic Charities had resettled in San Antonio within the last decade.

When Hartlee and her mother met with staff to learn what they needed, backpacks and school supplies topped the list. Last week, they brought the backpacks and supplies to their house and filled the bags to deliver to the volunteer-run center. The center, located at 8703 Wurzbach Road, offers basic services to refugees such as educational help, tutoring, clothes, food and household items.

“I like giving other people stuff that we have and they don’t have,” Hartlee said.

The youngster is following the example of her parents, who have instilled a belief that it’s vital to help people in need. From 2013 to 2016, Stephanie and Shane Menn owned Freedom Cup, a coffee shop in Boerne that supported clean-water projects and families adopting children around the globe.

Stephanie Menn found she had a heart for mission work 17 years ago at Texas A&M University after attending conferences and churches and learning about the plight of people around the world. She said during times when it’s easy for individuals to get caught up in their own world, she’s glad her daughter has compassion for those in need.

“Kids at this age are so impressionable,” Stephanie Menn said. “You get to put this fire in their heart and hopefully it will catch on.”

One of Hartlee’s friends followed her example and enlisted her mother to host a jewelry sale party with proceeds going to women in need.

Margaret Costantino, director for the Center for Refugee Services, said volunteers have found working with the refugees to be a transformative experience. Children who have helped at the office range from a 2-year-old child to a 12-year-old Boy Scout. Costantino said that when the young volunteers meet refugee children at the center, they are more inclined to be more welcoming of refugee children attending their schools.

“I think the parents are trying very hard to expose their children in a very healthy way to people who are different than them,” Costantino said. “The only way that we’re going to change the world is by teaching our children to be more tolerant and accepting.”

Hartlee is far along on that path. She sees a future where she is a midwife and a missionary in India, helping young girls like Amy Carmichael, a Protestant Christian missionary she has read about. For now, there’s more work to be done here at home.

“It’s people like you,” center secretary Jean Sherrill said to the children, “that keep us open.”

“I like giving other people stuff that we have and they don’t have.”
Hartlee Menn, 9-year-old third-grader at the Geneva School of Boerne

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