When CDS volunteers Angie Denov, Pam Leffers and I arrived at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in “old downtown” McAllen, we were unsure what to expect. Pre-deployment communication had been minimal, and it didn’t take us long to find out why. This was a very busy place that kept its small staff and many volunteers focused on the mission at hand: helping immigrant families seeking asylum in the United States get what they need in order to begin their life in the United States. That task was all consuming.
We did know that Sister Norma was the Head of Catholic Charities RGV and, while we might meet her (which we were pleased to do that first day), our most important contacts were Alma and Ira, the on-site staff that manage the day-to-day operations. We were aware that there was a child care area already present, that afternoons were likely to be our busiest time and that this would be a unique assignment, calling for flexibility and creativity. All those proved true and then some!
Alma greeted us warmly, expressing her pleasure that, at least for a while, there would be especially trained child caregivers who could focus on the children. She explained that, while three weeks before we arrived a representative of Bright Horizons Foundation had set up and equipped the child care area, volunteers to supervise were not always available and the children often were on their own. She shared that a busload of immigrants would be arriving each afternoon after having been processed at the Border Patrol Detention Center, typically about half of whom would be children. Today they were expecting 160 folks. And with that, she turned the child care area over to us.
Wait a minute! In a few hours we might have nearly 80 children to care for! We got busy. Bright Horizons Foundation had provided wonderful, commercial daycare-grade equipment: shelving for materials, child-sized tables and chairs, book cases, a kitchen set and a play-house as well as puzzles, dolls, stuffed animals, coloring books, crayons, markers and colored pencils. The place was a mess! The floor was littered with broken crayons, materials were scattered all over the 17×24 foot area and surfaces defaced with crayon markings.
Over the next few hours we enlisted the dozen children present in helping us vacuum, wash down tables and move equipment into a more orderly arrangement with clear activity areas to provide more structure. Books were sorted, art materials organized, play materials disinfected and displayed in a way that invited organized play. We quickly decided that we would do away with our usual registration process, as the families had already been subjected to so much paperwork and questioning. We would keep children safe, develop relationships as best we could, and try to be a non-anxious presence during a highly stressful time for the families.
When the buses arrived, we were ready, and we watched in amazement as the Respite Center folks respectfully greeted the families and gently moved them through a very organized process. Adults and young children who were not ready to separate from their families took seats in rows of blue chairs, to be quickly called forward to meet with a volunteer at a computer who helped them locate their family member and make traveling reservations. The older kids were lined up, assisted in washing hands, and taken to tables to eat a hot meal. Over the next few hours, all had a chance to eat two hot meals, take a shower, get new clothes, shoes, toiletries and a back-pack to carry their belongings. The adults clutched manila envelopes with their bus tickets and some cash inside, their bus change schedule and, in large print, “Please help me. I don’t speak English” on the outside.
As the children finished their lunch, they joined us to play with playdough, draw or color, put puzzles together that always went together the same way (something they could control!), read or be read to in English or Spanish, or engage in dramatic play with dolls, cars and blocks. None of the three of us had much Spanish, but with our Google Translate apps at the ready, we managed to communicate as best we could. That first day we had 72 child contacts and were exhausted, but as we processed over a late supper, we all agreed at how amazingly self-directed and calm the children were. They seemed so thankful to have a place to just play and laugh and create. It was an observation that we would make many times during our time in McAllen.
On our way to the Respite Center the second morning, we stopped at a big box store to purchase more playdough (a favorite every day!), art materials, games for the older kids and disinfectant. We also brought dolls, more blocks and dramatic play materials from out Kits of Comfort to supplement what was in the center when we arrived.
All the floor space in the Respite Center was needed at night for sleeping mats for the families, so before we left, we had stacked all of our equipment against the walls. Thus, this second day and each one that followed, began with sweeping the floor, re-arranging the furniture and play materials and disinfecting toys that had been handled. This became our routine: packing up at night and putting it all back again in the morning to be ready for a new batch of children.
We became quite efficient at this and within just a few days had established a room arrangement that handled the volume and ages of the children well. Two-thirds of the space was set up like a preschool center. The other third, behind the bookcase, held adult-sized lounge chairs where the adolescents could relax, play cards and chat. Many of them, and some parents, too, also enjoyed using colored pencils to fill out adult coloring books we had available for that purpose.
The second day brought 82 child contacts, so we were busy again! On the days when we only had 50 or so, it felt like a light day! As new volunteers arrived, and others left, we had several days when we had four volunteers or more, and those days also felt luxurious. Over the 13 days of service provided by the first team, we served 790 children. We cherished every one of them, but, of course, there were some who stood out. There was the ever-smiling teenage boy who was with us three days due to bus schedule issues (most of the families were gone the day after they arrived, so our typical contact was a brief one.) He was very artistic and made several folded paper creations for each of us. There were the two vision-impaired children and the deaf boy who engaged with us lovingly.
And then there was 12-year-old Princess. I share her story with her mother’s permission. One couldn’t miss her as she arrived, as she came sitting sideways in a simple adult walker being pushed by her mother. It was obvious that she had cerebral palsy. As we came to know her over the next day and a half, we all fell in love with her easy laughter, her good eye contact, her creative dramatic play and her affable personality. Her mother had traveled with her from Russia to Uzbekistan to Guatemala to McAllen. Now, we hope, they are finally re-united with family. Mom touched us, too. Offered nail polish, Mom enjoyed doing her own and Princess’s nails—a little luxury after a long period of deprivation. Offered a bottle of polish to take with her, she demurred, saying, “No. There are others who will want it, too.” Such generosity was touching and a quality we noted in many of the families as they interacted with one another.
As CDS volunteers rotated through the deployment, they each brought their own gifts and interests to enhance the service we provided. Pam sorted through all the donated books, making sure most were in Spanish and all were appropriate. Angie made sure that materials were in good shape and easily accessible. Carolyn Neher, when she joined the team on Day 5, added more Spanish and became both our go-to for increased communication and the queen of the playdough table! Kelly Boyd and Kat Liebbrant added more Spanish, quality Child Life Specialist skills, and youthful energy. They also brought soccer balls, much to the delight of our adolescents and a good number of parents who joined in kicking it up in the protected parking lot! And, in her last days as CDS Associate Director, Kathy Fry-Miller not only engaged with the children, but made Alma’s day by arranging for a second team to arrive the Tuesday after Team 1 left, assuring at least two more weeks of the quality childcare that she and her volunteers indicated had made such a big difference.
A lasting image from the McAllen response was a practice that the folks at the Respite Center had established. As the stream of families entered the center every afternoon, looking tired, anxious and uncertain, everyone in the center stopped whatever they were doing and began applauding, accompanied by shouts of “Hola” and “Bienvenido!” Watching those faces change to looks of surprise, followed by broad smiles made our day every time! It was a blessing to be a part of this humanitarian work, staffed by volunteers from many faiths from across the United States, as we ‘welcomed the stranger!”
Read more about the CDS response in Texas in “The lucky ones” by Carolyn Neher.
John Kinsel served as Project Coordinator for the first McAllen Response CDS team. He is a member of the Beavercreek Church of the Brethren in Beavercreek, Ohio and has been a CDS volunteer since 1982.