Whether it’s assisting the Lost Boys of Sudan or making sandwiches for the homeless, Jill Rich has been a tireless volunteer in Tucson for more than 30 years. And her commitment to helping others began even longer ago. “Helping others is what I was raised to do. It’s what I like to do,” says Rich. “Helping others is what I think is normal.”
Rich’s entrée into volunteering in Tucson came with the resettlement by Jewish Family & Children’s Services and the International Rescue Service of 1,000 Russian Jews and thousands of other ethnic refugees. She now considers many of those refugees part of her family, especially the Lost Boys, who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005. “They still call me ‘mom,’” says Rich, who has worked with the “boys” since 2001. “Of the 58 Lost Boys, over 25 have graduated from the University of Arizona. Six have master’s degrees. I have lots of grandchildren.” Rich founded the Sudanese Promise Fund, a nonprofit for local refugees, in 2002.
Her volunteer efforts have brought about “life-changing experiences on so many levels,” says Rich, adding that she and her husband, Jim, “have made so many life-long friends and have been introduced to cultures we wouldn’t have known. It’s helped me cultivate openness.”
Rich recalls taking some of the Lost Boys to the circus years ago. “So many of their experiences here were new, like walking up to a door and it opens. They were having trouble differentiating between what was real and what was fantasy” at times, she told the AJP. “I learned to not make assumptions about what other people are thinking.”
Although around three-quarters of the boys were Episcopalian or Catholic, Rich remembers one who had been taken in by an Ethiopian Jewish family and became Jewish when he was very young. He told her, “I began Passover in Africa and I would like to end it here in Tucson.”
As the Lost Boys have grown and some have gone on to other locales, Rich has had no shortage of commitments. She works as a realtor for the Long Realty Company, serving on the board of the Long Cares Foundation, which awards monthly grants to nonprofits. She has served on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona since 2006. Rich is a board member and vice president at Temple Emanu-El, where she also is both social action and fundraising chair.
With the end of Operation Deep Freeze, which supplied homeless people with winter clothing and shelter through local congregations until 2013, “I started a new cute program, Operation Sandwich,” says Rich. With other members of Temple’s social action committee, she makes bag lunches three or four times a week to take to homeless people at the Southside Shelter.
Rich is on the board and development committee of the Tucson Interfaith HIV/AIDS Network, where three congregations provide a monthly luncheon to people with HIV/AIDS. “There’s strict confidentiality and it’s a safe place,” she says. Rich is board chair for the local FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) office, allocating funds through grant proposals to Southern Arizonans who are homeless and live with food scarcity.
Temple’s social action committee meets once a month to work on projects. Last year the group “adopted” two refugees from Eritrea through Lutheran Social Services. “We invite them home to dinner, got them computers and help with acculturation,” says Rich.
The list of her volunteer activities seems endless, ranging from Jewish organizations to the American Red Cross, Primavera Foundation, Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless and Catholic Social services. Rich also helps put together “border packs, quart-size bags of lifesaving food like fruit juice and cheese for people dying in the desert” coming from Mexico and further south. Various agencies distribute the border packs. “There’s been criticism. Some have said that we’re helping people come here,” says Rich.
“I’m absolutely sure no one has ever crossed the border for our border packs. I’m sure too that we’ve saved lives with our eight-ounce bottles of juice,” she says. “And that’s a Jewish value. Still, I often feel like I’m applying band-aids. If I had unlimited funds I’d eliminate poverty worldwide.”