Scarred by war or fleeing famine, some of the refugees who come to Melissa Eagle Uhlmann’s nursing class are burdened with dark stories. Their hellish accounts of forced evacuations at gunpoint, lost relatives and struggling just to survive leave Uhlmann amazed at her students’ resiliency.
“I don’t know how some of these people go through that amount of trauma and then get up out of bed and go to work,” she said.
Uhlmann, a volunteer teacher at the Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association in Rochester, was named one of six winners Wednesday of the McKnight Foundation’s Virginia McKnight Binger Awards in Human Service, which come with a $10,000 prize. Each year, the foundation honors a group of Minnesotans for their “exceptional personal commitment” to help others.
Uhlmann, a registered nurse who works at Olmsted Medical Center in Rochester, first volunteered to teach nursing assistant classes to immigrants several years ago. Soon she was hearing deeply moving tales of survival that resonated with her after a hardscrabble early life in Bay City, Mich.
The story that always “gives me goose bumps,” she said, is of a normal day suddenly turned terrifying when a soldier appears at the front door with a warning to flee because a war front is imminently approaching.
“What would I do?” Uhlmann said, imagining herself in that position. “What if not everyone was home that day? What if my daughter was at a friend’s house? A lot of the people who come here are just regular people who had no control or power over what was going on around them.”
Uhlmann said she’s been embarrassed to see refugees and other immigrants treated poorly, “because perhaps they’re another color, or another religion, or they don’t speak English clearly, or there’s this perception that they’re living off of the government. They’re not.”
Her classes help students prepare for jobs as nursing assistants and typically involve a mix of medical terms and cultural literacy, for instance learning that the word “grandfather” or “grandmother” may be a term of respect for an elderly stranger in some countries, but not in the United States. She also teaches courses for people who want to become medical interpreters.
With her award money, Uhlmann plans to buy herself a new pair of glasses and pay off some medical bills for her daughter. The rest will go toward a series of “Pay-it-Forward” stunts that she and her kids dreamed up to spread her newfound wealth. A trip to the tire store has been planned, to buy a set of tires for the customer with the worst-looking car. Same thing at the grocery store, looking for the most “stressed-out mom” to pay her grocery bill. Uhlmann’s fourth-grade son wants to leave $100 in quarters in envelopes on area vending machines with a note: “If you’re having a bad day, have a pop on us.”
Uhlmann and her husband have five children age 15 and younger. She dismissed the idea that people with large families don’t have time to volunteer.
“Here’s the deal on that: People always say, ‘I’m so busy, I’m so busy, I don’t have time.’ Yes, you do have time. Everybody can make time,” she said.
In addition to Uhlmann, this year’s winners are Brenda Anderson of Waseca, for working with children who have been to multiple foster homes; Barbara Fabre of Ogema, for child-care and early-childhood programs on the White Earth Indian Reservation; Liz Kuoppala of Moorhead, for her work with the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless; Juan Linares of St. Paul, for helping Latino immigrants and migrant workers, and Susan Neis of Minneapolis, for her work on domestic violence over three decades. The awards are named after the foundation’s first board chair, the daughter of the founders. Virginia McKnight Binger died in 2002.