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June 9, 2009 — Bruce "Sonny" Beale has a large family.
"People ask me how many kids I have and tell them I have two of my own and 400 of other people's," said Beale, director of the University of Virginia's recycling program.
Beale and his wife, Debra, recently received the 2009 Governor's Volunteerism and Community Service Award for their work assisting local refugees in their adjustment to life in the United States.
The Beales have spent many years helping refugees find work, complete their education and learn new customs.
"They are the ones who show all of this to us," said Fatuma Osman, a Somali refugee, who spread her arms wide to indicate the entire region. "He is everything to us."
On a recent visit to the Osman house, Beale was greeted with delighted squeals and hugs as several children and teens ran out of the front door. Within minutes they were sitting in chairs in the front yard, teasing each other and joking in two languages, as if they had always been together.
"When we want to go somewhere, we just call him," Fatuma said. "I want to be just like him – but not a man."
Nana Akyeampong Ghartey, a behavioral specialist with Region 10, nominated the Beales for the award.
"I knew the Beales were very much into helping refugees," he said. "I saw local people who were solid heroes and no one was recognizing this. I thought they must be rewarded to encourage other people to help."
Cheryl Gomez, director of utilities at Facilities Management and Beale's supervisor, said he is like many U.Va. employees, who work hard not only at their jobs but also at making Charlottesville a better place.
"Many of the refugees who have come to this community have added to the diversity of the University's workforce," she said. "I think it is wonderful that the governor has recognized his efforts."
Beale, 50, began working at the University in 1987. He started in landscaping, moved to recycling in 1992 and took over the department in May 2005.
The Beales' involvement with refugees started with a house fire. The Osmans lived down the street, and one of their children, Abass, was in Debra Beale's fourth-grade class at Johnson Elementary School. When the Osmans' house caught fire, Abass came to the Beale house to call 911.
"We took 14 family members into our house for that night," Beale said. "And four of the kids – two boys and two girls – stayed with us when the family split up to live with other families until they could get another place to live."
Since then, the Beales have worked with families from all over the world, including Congo, Somalia, Ghana, Mexico, Honduras, Tibet, Liberia and Burma. Beale has helped the adults find jobs, learn to work with tools and complete paperwork. They also help the children get education, both formal and informal.
"His wife helps us with homework," Fatuma said.
Several of the Somalis said that learning English was very difficult. Beale said they would constantly ask him, "What is this in English?" It made him think, he said, about common things he takes for granted that are revelations to foreigners.
"It is really hard to understand reading," said Zahara Mahamud, also from Somalia. "Speaking is easy. Writing and reading are the hardest parts."
Beale noted reading is hard for them because they are used to reading from right to left.
"We make sure they keep up their grades and if they get bad grades, we don't let them come over to the house," he said. "I also like to introduce them to things they have never seen or heard of, such as the International House of Pancakes."
Beale also teaches the children to work with tools and plan projects. He recently purchased a 1998 car with which the boys can learn auto mechanics.
This is not a one-way street. Beale believes he benefits from learning about the refugees and their countries, customs and wide-eyed view of American culture.
"I think I get more from the kids and their families than they get from me," he said. "Every day is a learning opportunity, and I have learned so much from the people who surround me. It is rewarding just to know them."
The Beale house has become that house on the street to which children gravitate.
"I came home from work one day and counted about 20 kids running in and out of the house," he said, "and not just refugees, but kids from the neighborhood, too."
He constantly exhorts them to do good work, stay out of trouble and have dreams for their futures.
"I want them to believe in anything they want to do," he said. "And I tell them that every day they make choices that affect their futures."