PHOTO BY Hillary Ehlen
SCHOOL SUPPLY DRIVE PHOTOS COURTESY OF United Way
“I remember standing in line with my little sister and our social worker,” Irma Ciber said. “We were in foster care at the time. My sister was going into kindergarten and to know she would have a backpack on her first day meant the world to me.”
That was 1998. Nineteen years later, Irma stood in the Fargodome this summer with a group of volunteers and coworkers from Border States Electric, looking over a sea of backpacks they had just helped fill with school supplies. She noticed a poster that said “19th annual United Way School Supply Drive” and turned to one of the organizers and said, “I was there on the very first one, 19 years ago.”
Becoming the Parent Your Little Sister Will Never Have
The very first thing you will notice about Irma Ciber is a kind, warm wisdom that glows from her eyes and a light-hearted yet grateful zest for life in her voice, despite the scars of hardship, loss and challenges throughout her life.
In 1992, Irma was living with her parents and her sister, Dijana, in Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian war. After the military cut off food, water and electricity to their home, Irma, her mom and little sister were in a gas explosion that left the three women badly burned and forced to evacuate to receive the medical help they desperately needed to survive.
By November, 9-year-old Irma would be forced to flee her country, suffer third-degree burns, see her dad drafted as a soldier and lose her mother. In an instant, Irma and her sister were in a foreign country, all alone, with no one to depend on but one another. “She (her sister) looked up to me as a mother,” Ciber said. “Even today, we still have that relationship.” The sisters spent six months together in an Italian hospital and two years with an adoptive family before moving to Fargo in hopes of a better life.
Many of us cannot imagine losing our mother and becoming the parent our younger sibling will never have, let alone, being forced to leave your country and start over – all before becoming a teenager.
Receiving the Best Gift
“I do get very emotional reflecting back on where I came from,” she said. “When we got to Fargo, my family was poor and I remember the struggle of fitting in at school,” Irma said, remembering trying to hide the fact she only had two pairs of pants and a handful of shirts.
“Getting a backpack that day was like receiving the best gift,” she said. “The United Way helped me fit in. It helped hide my financial situation and allowed me to feel like a normal kid on that first day of school.”
Setting the Tone for the Future
The school supplies meant everything to Irma. They opened a world of inclusion and success.
“Having the things you need for your first day of school sets the tone for how things will go in the future,” she said.
In the 19 years since her experience with the School Supply Drive, Irma went on to graduate from Fargo South in 2003 and from North Dakota State University in 2008.
“Having the things you need for your first day of school sets the tone for how things will go in the future.” – Irma Ciber
“It has helped me belong. Because of that sense of belonging, I was able to excel in my life, get a college degree and now have a full-time job at Border States Electric. But it is thanks to the help I received as a child,” she said. Today, Irma lives in Moorhead with her fiancée Kevin and children Lamya and Isaiah.
Being Able to Throw Something Back
When asked what she hoped to tell the community that has given her so much, Irma shared a quote by Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back.”
“The School Supply Drive has a dear place in my heart, so whenever I have a chance to volunteer, I jump to do it,” she said, “I hope by sharing my story, it will encourage others to get involved.”
“I want people to realize it’s not just about a backpack. It’s more than that. It’s seeing that child’s face light up when they have the things they need to be able to excel in school,” she said.
This fall, 5,800 local students went to school with a backpack full of school supplies from United Way thanks to community members who stepped forward to make an investment in children like Irma and her sister, in hopes that they, too, will have the confidence they need to find that path of success not just in school, but in life.
“We all have our own personal stories that make us who we are. Mine happens to be one of those stories that without the help of this giving community, wouldn’t have been as successful as it is,” she said. The 20th annual United Way of Cass-Clay School Supply Drive kicks off in July 2018.