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Tuesday 03 July 2012

Independence Day
Independence Day ©iStockphoto.com/SeanPavonePhoto

Independence Day is a holiday celebrated in the US to commemorate the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. For many, it’s a celebration of freedom and opportunity. Tiffany Stephenson is the Communications and Events Manager at ShelterBox USA. From refugee to charity worker, she has her own tale of freedom and opportunity.

Where were you were born? I was born in a small town just outside of Bangkok, Thailand.

Were you a refugee? Yes, I was born in a refugee camp when my family was escaping communist Laos.

Did you travel much throughout your childhood? I didn’t do much international travel until my early 20s, and I’ve since travelled throughout Europe, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

How did you end up in the USA? My family is originally from Laos in Southeastern Asia. After the Royal Lao Kingdom was overthrown by the communist party in 1975, my grandfather, an officer in the Royal Lao Army, was captured and lived in a communist 're-education' camp for several years.

When it was decided he had been 're-educated,' he was freed. He considered himself lucky as many members of the Royal family disappeared or died in the camps. Within a week, he gathered his family and sold what he could to purchase plane tickets to the US. His family was relatively wealthy before the war but they lost everything and had to leave any last possessions behind to get a chance at freedom and opportunity.

On their way to the US, my family travelled through Thailand, where I was born. My first months in the world were spent travelling across the globe and living in a refugee camp in the Philippines. Before I reached my first birthday, my family found themselves starting a new life in the US.

What made you want to get involved with humanitarian aid work?
I’ve been involved with charity work in some capacity for a long time, but it perhaps wasn’t until I got to college that I knew it would play a major role in my life and who I am.

My family came to this country 30 years ago. Since then, we’ve been very blessed. My parents worked very hard and built relatively successful businesses to provide for us. They gave me many opportunities, including a college education.


Tiffany Stephenson with her family at some waterfalls in Luangprabang, Laos, where her family is from. From left to right: her cousin, Sinh; her cousin, Pom's son, Simon; another cousin's child, Minh; Tiffany; cousin, Pom; Sinh's son, Wave.

With the help of many generous people—missionaries and aid workers in the beginning and others along the way, my family found the freedom and opportunity they were looking for.

I was especially drawn to ShelterBox because we provide not just the tools, but hope to rebuild, to begin a new life. When I heard about the people ShelterBox helps, I thought about the children, the parents, the families who have lost everything through no fault of their own.

In my family’s case, the disaster was ongoing conflict. It takes hard work and perseverance, but where would my family be if there weren’t so many people to help them along the way? Others had kindly given my family the tools we needed to rebuild our lives independently and with dignity. I believe everything happens for a reason and this is why I found ShelterBox.

It is not only my passion but my duty to pay it forward by supporting global humanitarian aid efforts—to help families around the world, families just like my own.

How do you feel now working for an aid agency that provides shelter to other refugees and displaced families? I feel incredibly proud and honoured to be a part of something so special. My family was given hope and a chance at a new beginning during a time of crisis in their lives. They lost everything and came to America with nothing but the shirts on their backs. But I feel so blessed to have the opportunities I was given growing up here. My family has been relatively successful and now, it’s my turn to give back. I’m so drawn to ShelterBox because we help families just like my own—children, mothers and fathers, grandparents just like my own—helping them to rebuild their lives.

You are a ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) member candidate – where are you in the selection process? I’ve made it to the five-day course in Texas! In August, I’ll be training with 16 other volunteers who are hoping to become SRT members. If I make it through, I’ll have a chance to go through the nine-day training course at ShelterBox International headquarters in the UK.

You can give families who have lost everything in a disaster a chance at freedom and opportunity by helping them rebuild their lives with a gift of a big green box. Make a difference to those families in need around the world and donate to ShelterBox today.
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