They come through a glass door into a large room of a plain building in the poorer section of McAllen Texas. Some are holding the hand of or being carried by a father, mother, an older sibling, an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. Their hair is matted from not having a bath for days, their eyes wide and unsure how to respond to the greetings and cheering of those inside this simple building.
The people clapping and cheering are the volunteers who work there. Some live locally and come every day, others have come from all across the country to help. Some volunteers sort donations of clothing, personal items, backpacks, toys and other items donated. Others sit at a long row of tables prepared to contact a family member in the U.S. and get bus tickets.
The children of the families who have just been released from one of the detention centers in South Texas range from 2 to 17 months, as well as some young adults. They have come from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, or even Russia. There are children who are healthy, sick, blind, or deaf. Some have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, or autism.
In a partitioned section of this room there is a space for the children, with loving volunteers who have been trained to care for children who have been traumatized. These volunteers are from Children’s Disaster Services, an organization that is a part of the Disaster Ministries of the Church of the Brethren. The children are fed, then encouraged to go to the play area. Some children come in with smiles and are ready to play; others need some encouragement by being asked with a smile if they would like to play with “plastecina” (playdough) or if they would like to “pintar” (color) or perhaps “jugar con autos o animales” (play with cars or animals). There are children who just want to sit for a minute and take in the space and are not sure what to do. They still have either a wide-eyed stare or a look of fear in their eyes. With a gentle smile from the Children’s Disaster Services volunteers and a piece of “plastecina” in front of them, they slowly begin to smile and then joke and by the time it is their turn for the shower they don’t want to leave because they are having such a good time. Sometimes there is a child who will ask how to say something in English and the whole table is swooped into a Spanish - English lesson.
The older children and young adults enjoy card games such as UNO, or Go fish, which are easy to teach even if you don’t know Spanish. Jenga is also a favorite. Everyone in the room gives a big “Ahhh” when it falls. Suddenly there is a connection with one another.
Volunteers who have a love of soccer get a group of teens to go outside to the parking lot for a small game of “futbol”. Older children are patient with younger, showing such love and care. At the end of the day there are four balls on the roof and new friendships made.
As these folks get to know the volunteers, they may be able to communicate part of their story and how long their trip was. They may have come by bus, walked, or in the back of a semi with 60 other people. Where are they going? The volunteers show them on a map of the United States answering what they can about how long it will take or how many bus changes they will have.
A 40-year-old man stands on the outside of the children’s play center looking at a children’s activity book. It is open to a page with letters. He is quietly mouthing the letters. He is seen by a volunteer and asked if he would like to practice the letters. Suddenly there are five men standing there, wanting to learn the letters and some English words to help them on their trip. After much laughter and mispronunciation by all there are three pages of words and phrases in English to take on their journey.
The very same evening these families come, they may leave. Some will stay until the next day waiting for their scheduled bus departure. They steal the volunteer’s hearts for 6- 48 hours and then are on their way.
Volunteers cheer and wave goodbye as they leave and wipe a tear from their eyes. Around 3:30 PM each day, another group of families is bused to this small simple building.
Carolyn Neher is a volunteer with Children's Disaster Services.
Read more about the CDS response in Texas in "Every day is a new beginning" by John Kinsel.