Leading with Compassion—A local organization assists vulnerable people in crisis
Susan Sperry’s resume stands on its own. But it may be something less tangible that makes her the perfect choice to serve as executive director of World Relief DuPage/Aurora, a title she assumed in September. Previously she served as program director overseeing social services provided to refugees in the area, initial resettlement, employment, youth services and counseling.
Sperry was born and raised in the small town of St. Simon’s in South Georgia. She attended Wheaton College, North Park University (a Christian liberal arts university in Chicago) and Northwestern University. She says her father worked for a nonprofit company and the value of giving back was impressed upon her and her two younger siblings at a very early age. “We grew up knowing about people who suffered around the world. We learned from my parents about giving back. And it was very much rooted in the Christian faith,” Sperry says.
When she was in high school a young girl from Croatia came to live with her family for six months. “While my childhood certainly shaped my desire to work with refugees and immigrants, it is the example of Jesus and a desire to follow him that drives my involvement with World Relief and other organizations that promote justice and fight poverty.”
World Relief has been resettling refugees, through a contract with the US Department of State, in DuPage County since 1979 and in the city of Aurora since 1999. Once they arrive, volunteers from area churches and families have helped those refugees transition into life in the United States. Sperry’s first personal experience with the program she now oversees gave her “a desire to learn about people different from myself.” And, Sperry says to this day, that remains her favorite part of working with World Relief.
“This is the worst refugee crisis since World War II,” according to Sperry. Fortunately, she says, with the increased focus on the situation in Syria, help for refugees from individuals and churches has been “coming out of the woodwork.” Currently, World Relief DuPage/Aurora settles around 565 people in DuPage and Kane counties annually.
Immigration was a controversial subject in the recent presidential election and Sperry says there is “some concern,” but she remains focused on “advocating for continued resettlement of all the identified refugee groups, including Syrians.”
Last year marked the first year Syrian refugees could be admitted into the resettlement program, Sperry says. “The numbers are still small, around twenty families since 2015.” She adds there are less than a dozen who have been here for more than a year, and she calls them “the most vulnerable” of the refugee population. “Most refugees we work with have fled persecution from Burma, Iraq and Bhutan, along with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Iran.” She continues, “They were victims of torture, came from single-parent headed households or were battling significant health conditions.”
Once the refugees arrive in the United States, a rigorous process begins to ensure they are housed, given job counseling, health care and other social services. Sperry oversees the entire process. It takes the right mix of organizational, leadership, advocacy and people skills to pull it off successfully. But it requires another important—though less measurable—skill as well. “I thought I knew a lot about compassion,” Sperry reflects. “I learned about the world by doing this.”