Each time Jacque Elama hands out a package of food, he connects with another family in need.
The interactions touch Elama, a specialist in the Ohio National Guard, on a personal level. He spent most of the first 10 years of his life in a refugee camp in his native Democrat Republic of the Congo before his family came to America. He is now 25 years old and part of a National Guard mission helping out at a food bank in Toledo.
"It was a hard endeavor to overcome,'' Elama said of his childhood. "Basically, my parents tried to shape me into a person who can be encouraging to others, because they themselves didn't have what I have right now, the technology, the cars.''
Those things are not what prompted Core and Antoinette Elama, their five children (Jacque is the oldest) and one of Jacque's uncles to relocate to Newport News, Virginia. Jacque said they arrived in 2004; Core recalled it was in 2005. Regardless of the timeline, one fact remained clear.
The Elamas were escaping their war-torn homeland in search of a better life, searching for a home in a country in which they were stepping foot for the first time.
"Once you come, you just come,'' Core Elama said. "You need the help to get yourself set and [adjusted] to the new situation. You really need help in any way, so you set yourself in the community.''
The Elamas' move from Congo, a country of nearly 90 million people in central Africa, was fraught with challenges, not the least of which was learning a different language. Jacque Elama's parents needed jobs; they found work in factories. They did not know how to drive and never had experienced the mundane tasks that Americans take for granted, such as going to the grocery store, paying bills and scheduling medical appointments.
The family had never owned a television — or operated an oven, for that matter. So much was new, but they were ever so grateful.
Their circumstances were much improved from the world they left behind.
"The struggles were absolutely difficult, compared to how I'm living here in the U.S.,'' Jacque Elama said. "The basic necessities were hard to come by [in Congo], so we had to struggle to get food and water for the family. Mostly as a child, I personally did not experience any personal hardship, because what you're doing is just playing around, having as much fun as you can without worrying about the outside world.
"I was pretty much enjoying my life as much as I possibly could.''
A Catholic charity organization helped the Elamas relocate to America.
Jacque Elama credited one couple in that group in particular, Keith and Jill Boadway, with being especially helpful in easing the family's transition.
"They came to our house for Thanksgiving,'' Jill Boadway said. "Jacque used to come to our house during the summer and spend a week at our home. We have a son who's about the same age. It was a real blessing.''
Spc. Jacque Elama. Courtesy photo.
The Elamas became U.S. citizens in 2010 and moved to Ohio when Jacque was in high school. He joined the Ohio National Guard in 2017 and embraced the opportunity to participate in his unit's mission as a volunteer at a food bank.
Elama packs boxes for emergency relief, veterans and senior citizens and distributes them to those same groups, said Lt. Michael Porter, the task-force leader.
For 40 hours a week, Elama sees it as a way to give back. Each box reminds him of his parents' sacrifice.
"I think about it every day,'' said Elama, a senior at Bowling Green studying international relations. "It's a blessing and an honor to be out there and help people, because that's what I want to do in the future. I want to continue to help others.''