Camela Echols Blackmon, known as “Cam,” is a native Memphian. She got her start working as a social service director for the United Methodist Neighborhood Centers running a thrift store and distributing food baskets and clothes to those in need. Although she worked well with the community, she felt called to do much more than hand out food and clothes. Feeling the call to empower others toward self-sufficiency, she remembers the quote “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”
Cam’s work with refugees began when she met a lady named Ruth Lomo. Ruth is a Sudanese refugee who settled in the Binghampton area in 2001 with a goal to educate and empower other refugees to lead successful, non-dependent lives. Cam connected with Ruth while Ruth was in search of a place to hold her after school program. At the time, Cam worked in a facility that had available space and Ruth began to use the facility. It was through the sharing of Ruth’s stories as a refugee coming to America that Cam discovered her true passion and joined forces with Ruth to create an empowerment program for refugees.
During our time together, Cam shared a story of an encounter with a refugee mother who could not speak English but was able to gesture what she was in need of. After listening to the woman’s needs, Cam sent her home with toiletries and other household items. Excited about the connection she had made with the woman, Cam shared her encounter with Ruth. Although Cam had made a bond and established a rapport with the lady, Ruth explained the importance of encouraging the mother to enroll in English classes which would enable her to get a job and eventually provide for her family on her own.
Ruth, Cam, and a volunteer by the name of Rachelle Pichardo continued this work of advocating, educating, and bringing awareness in the Memphis schools to the educational needs of the children and their families. In 2002, they began an after-school program with 12 Sudanese, Somalian, and Afghani refugee children. The program soon involved to include ESL (English as a Second Language) and Pre-GED courses for parents of the children.
Years later, they began searching for a location where those who were part of the program could have easy access and walk to the location. In 2007, R.E.P. (Refugee Empowerment Program) moved into a then newly-renovated place known as The Commons, a shared space operated by the Center for Transforming Communities, where they have remained. Since its initial start in 2002, R.E.P. has grown from a 12-child after-school program to one that has educates 350 plus refugees comprised of more than 20 different nationalities. 100% of its 18 high school graduates went on to pursue post-secondary education or trade school.
When asked about the future of R.E.P., Cam envisions it as a program for refugees run by refugees. Moving forward, she wishes to establish a transitional school where refugee youth would spend 18-24 months mastering core academic skills such as English and math to better prepare them for success in the public school system. R.E.P. continues to remain a safe place where all, regardless of religion, nationality, language, or tribe affiliation can come, learn, be empowered, and empower and strengthen others.