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Community group gives refugees living in Erie a guided tour of Warren County

Photo submitted to Times Observer Father Jim Gutting of Holy Redeemer Church poses with two visiting refugee children during their hike in the forest on Saturday in Warren County.

Inspired by a small faith group session prior to Easter, a group of Warrenites invited refugee children — now living in Erie — to Warren County for a hike in the forest and a visit to the Kinzua Dam.

The group braved rain and ignored distant thunder for the experience.

The middle-school children, accompanied by four adult guides, met their Warren hosts at the Warren County Visitors Bureau (WCVB) and were enthusiastically welcomed by WCVB Executive Director Dave Sherman.

“These children arrived in Erie under the auspices of the Multicultural Community Resource Center (MCRC) ,which is charged with assisting families from strife-filled foreign countries who emigrated to America,” said Bill Massa, one of the Warren hosts. “The Warren County visitors were natives of the Ukraine, Syria, Somalia, Eritrea (a country bordering Somalia), and Nepal. They were joined by a family from Chile, including two children presently visiting the Warren area, and two local children.”

MCRC helps families find housing, learn English and job skills, and get financial assistance for a limited time before they must support themselves.

“We provide the families with social support,” said MCRC Executive Director Paul Jericho.

Jericho called Saturday’s event was a memorable one for the refugee children.

“The kids are excited,” Jericho said. “They don’t have many memories, but they will remember this.”

Jericho was invited to speak here in February by the League of Women Voters. He said that refugee families have started approximately 150 new businesses in Erie in the past several years.

From the WCVB, the congregation proceeded to the Hearts Content National Recreation Area (HCNRA) of the Allegheny National Forest, where Chuck Keeports and Sylvia Grisez, knowledgeable forest volunteers, led the group on a hike of the Hearts Content Interpretive Trail.

Iran Martinez, of Warren, a friend of the Chilean family, also joined them.

This one-mile loop winds through a virgin timber forest of 400-year-old trees, and the children learned about tall white pines, hemlock and beech trees, in addition to the plant-life, including fiddlehead ferns.

Fortunately, the threatening rain held off the entire duration of the hike, but began shortly after.

The young visitors, their chaperones and hosts were treated to a bag lunch at the HCNRA pavilion out of the rain. Father Jim Gutting of Holy Redeemer Church, who also was on the hike, gave a blessing.

The seven-vehicle procession then drove to the Big Bend Visitor Center of the Kinzua Dam and Allegheny Reservoir. There, the children heard about the history of the dam, including George Washington’s 1794 pact with Chief Cornplanter. When quizzed, most children knew the name of the first president of the U.S. Once again outside, now in a driving rain, they viewed the spring outflow, which was about 4,500 cubic feet per second.

The day concluded with a treat at McDonalds in Warren before their return to Erie.

“The kids were well-mannered, attentive and appreciative,” said Massa. “They seemed to have really enjoyed the day.”

Financial support for the event was provided by the Warren County Visitors Bureau, the Allegheny Outdoor Club, the League of Women Voters of Warren County, the Knights of Columbus and a member of the small faith group. Further support from the community was provided by Total Evolution, TOPS Friendly Market and Kwik Fill/Red Apple.

Members of the Warren host organizing committee included Jennifer Bliss, Rose Mazzocchi, Regina Jabo, Steve Warner, Mary Massa and Bill Massa. Help assembling 40 lunch bags at the WCVB was provided by Phyllis Wright and Karen Hall.