As the holidays approached last year, Vicki Suttle and Marsha Gentry went to a pastor at their church, seeking a way to better invest themselves in the lives of the people in their community. “We wanted to connect with people on more than a one-time thing,” Vicki said.

The pastor steered them to Bridge Refugee Services, where they learned their church, Hixson Presbyterian Church, could form a Community Assistance Team, or CAT, to support refugees as they integrate into their new communities.

CATs welcome Bridge clients either by furnishing apartments for them, stocking their pantries or preparing meals, providing transportation assistance or English tutoring services, serving as a job development mentor, health care advocate or community guide, or offering financial assistance.

“We said, ‘This is exactly what we’re looking for,’” Marsha said.

Within a matter of weeks, the women had recruited fellow church members to join the CAT and the team had completed CAT training offered by Bridge staff and collected household items to furnish an apartment for a family of refugees slated to arrive in Chattanooga in early December.

“I’ve always known we had a fabulous church, but they just came alongside us and helped,” Vicki said.

On Dec. 4, 2018, the CAT welcomed the family of seven from the Republic of Burundi when they arrived.

“We went to the airport and picked them up and just fell in love with the family,” Marsha said.

In the ensuing days, CAT members helped them get acclimated to their new neighborhood and worked with the family’s Bridge case worker to accompany them to doctor’s appointments and the Social Security Administration office.

Vicki and Marsha, co-leaders of the CAT, also enlisted financial support from their church’s leaders, who agreed to dedicate a portion of its mission funds to provide one month’s rental assistance and purchase other needed items.

In March, the CAT similarly welcomed a mother and her 4-year-old son from Colombia, and, in June, a mother and her four children, also from Colombia.

“These are families that have not chosen this path,” Vicki said. “They have not said, ‘Gee, I want to leave my country and go to America.’”

CATs, she said, play an important role in easing their transition to their new surroundings.

“We have the opportunity to welcome them and show them, ‘You’re loved in Chattanooga and wanted, and we want to set you up in a way to give you the best possible opportunity to have a life in America,’” Vicki said.

Marsha said CATs build healthy, safe relationships with the refugees they support.

“The biggest advantage of being a CAT is you really do get to know the people, and I think it helps the client to be able to identify you as part of a family that is there to support them and help them,” she said. “The hugs you get from the kids when you appear at the door and they run and hug you, it’s just a good feeling to be a part of that.”

Vicki said a CAT’s structure allows members to be involved as much or as little as they feel comfortable.

“Everybody can play a part,” she said. “You can make a donation or give a bed you’re not using anymore.”

Or CAT members can interact more closely with refugees. Marsha and Vicki brought them on fun outings, took them shopping and shared meals with them. Another member, who speaks Spanish, accompanied the Colombian families to appointments to help with translation. And a teacher who is a member of the church developed a lesson plan about refugees for her students, who then made fleece blankets to donate to the families.

“We can put out on our women’s Facebook page, ‘We need this, this and this for a family,’ and within 48 hours, we have it all,” Marsha said. “It makes them feel so good to be able to know that their furniture that might have been their grandmother’s and is good furniture is going to a family in need.”

The women said Bridge not only serves as the liaison between the refugees and the CAT, but provides training and support every step of the way.

“Anybody with a little bit of confidence is able to do this,” Vicki said. “Everything you need, they’re there to help to provide. And they’re so thankful, you just want to do more.”

Marsha agreed, saying Bridge makes it as easy as possible for CATs to work with refugees.

“It really makes us want to continue to work with them because of their dedication to their jobs and to their clients and to their volunteers,” she said. “Once you get involved, you just fall in love with the people – the Bridge and the clients both. To watch them grow and progress and to watch how well they can speak English now a year later, it is so, so rewarding to be able to
witness all of that.”

For more information about becoming a CAT, contact Bridge’s volunteer manager at or 865-540-1311 ext. 111 in Knoxville or or 423-207-2538 in Chattanooga.