July 17, 2019, Laredo, Texas – Two Adrian Dominican Sisters have spent weeks on the border of the United States and Mexico this summer, volunteering their services to migrant families who come to La Frontera Migrant Shelter in Laredo, Texas.
Sisters Patricia Erickson, OP, and Sharon Spanbauer, OP – along with other Adrian Dominican Sisters – have been serving at the shelter at the invitation and encouragement of the General Council of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, as well as the invitation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Sister Sharon served at La Frontera from May 31, 2019, through June 22, 2019. Sister Pat arrived at the shelter on June 23, 2019, and will serve through July 20, 2019. Sisters have also volunteered their time at similar hospitality houses in El Paso and McAllen, Texas.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Laredo recently opened La Frontera when the Border Patrol announced that it would be releasing immigrants from detention centers to the streets. Twice a day, Border Patrol buses drop off migrant families who have been in detention centers to La Frontera. Up to 250 migrants come to the shelter each day.
Sister Sharon explained that the migrants who are released to La Frontera all have host families in the United States. New arrivals at La Frontera go through an intake and assessment process and then receive clean clothes, a shower, a meal, and help in getting to their host families.
“Mostly they were young families and some came in with vacant eyes, they were so exhausted,” Sister Sharon said. “Once people have had a shower, clean clothes, and a meal, they’re looking a lot better.”
Typically, the migrants arrive at La Frontera after traveling for weeks from their homes in Central America to the border and after spending time being processed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. “The resilience of the people coming to the shelter is amazing,” Sister Pat said. She recalled a young father who had traveled for three months with an 8-month-old infant. There were many similar stories and Sister Pat the “sheer determination” needed for families to make that journey.
“Walking into the shelter, some of the people are smiling and some are apprehensive about what they will experience in yet another facility,” Sister Pat wrote in a reflection on her experience. “We greet them with smiles and say ‘Welcome,’ hoping to alleviate their fears and say that this is a safe place.”
Volunteers at La Frontera serve in a variety of ways: preparing mattresses for the guests who will spend the night in the bedrooms on the second floor of the shelter; monitoring the men’s and women’s showers; organizing donations; preparing meals; making bag lunches for migrants to take when they leave; and helping guests select new clothes from a room full of donated clothing. Spanish-speaking volunteers can also help the migrants make arrangements to get to their host families – either arranging for a time for the host families to pick them up or for transportation of the migrants to their new homes.
Both Sister Pat and Sister Sharon – a nurse practitioner – used their skills to provide some medical care for the migrants. Sister Pat handed out over-the-counter medicine for minor aches and pains and colds. Sister Sharon served for part of the time in the health clinic at the shelter. “I could see patients and assess them and give them over-the-counter medicines,” Sister Sharon said. “I was able to be a resource and use some of my skills.”
Sister Sharon also spent much of her time changing sheets after one group of migrants left, preparing for the arrival of the next group. “It felt so appropriate that I was making their beds,” she said, adding that many immigrants make the beds in hotels and motels in the United States. “It touched me that I was cleaning for them, but that’s the way it should be.”
Both Sisters Pat and Sharon were impressed and inspired by the migrant families who came to La Frontera. “The people in the shelter are so grateful for everything they receive, saying ‘Gracias’ after being given a bottle of water, after each meal, after getting clean clothes, a shower, even when told that we don’t have a certain item,” Sister Pat wrote. “As people leave to go to the bus station, there are smiles on their faces and again ‘gracias por todo’ – thank you for everything. There are hugs and even tears as they leave to continue their journey.”
Sister Sharon described her experience in June as three weeks of payback. “I’ve been given so many things in my life,” she said. “This has just been an opportunity to pay it forward, not expecting anything in return.” She said her experience at La Frontera “put a face” on the issue of immigration. “Personally, I’ve always felt that each immigrant who comes improves the United States – anyone who has the gumption to get up and leave their home and get here brings a blessing.”
Both Sister Sharon and Sister Pat encouraged people to volunteer at La Frontera or other shelters or hospitality houses for immigrants – especially if they speak Spanish. “You can do anything there – whatever the gift is, and whenever you see that something needs to be done, you just do it,” Sister Sharon said. “You have to be willing to pitch in wherever you’re needed.”
Sister Pat, after a previous experience at McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, gave similar advice. “It’s a great experience,” she said. “Go without any expectations and be open to whatever comes your way. … You’re just there to be with people and to do whatever you can to help.”
While not everybody can travel to Texas to serve as volunteers at the hospitality centers and shelters, Sister Sharon noted that La Frontera is looking for donations of children’s, women’s, and men’s slacks, shirts, socks, and undergarments in sizes small and medium; practical shoes but no heels; and socks and belts for men. Donations can be sent to La Frontera Migrant Shelter, 1616 Callaghan Street, Laredo, Texas 78040. For information or to volunteer, contact Benjamin De la Garza at 956-220-3785.
Feature photo (top): Bishop James A. Tamayo of the Diocese of Laredo blesses plaques, made by a volunteer. The plaques hang in the guest rooms of La Frontera Migrant Shelter in Laredo, Texas.
Sister Patricia Erickson, OP, fourth from left, enjoys dinner at Rochas, a Mexican restaurant in Laredo, with other volunteers, Sparkill Dominican Sisters, and the coordinator of La Frontera Migrant Shelter.
In response to a request for volunteers from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Sister Cathy Olds, OP, served from January 26, 2019, to February 10, 2019, at Nazareth Center, one of nine sites of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. The sites offer hospitality for refugees who are released from detention and are on their way to sponsored homes within the United States. Other Adrian Dominican Sisters had answered the call and served at Annunciation House and at the McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. They share their experiences here.
March 2, 2019, El Paso, Texas – How can one explain a journey that can truly only be understood if personally experienced, a journey of the heart, yet a journey that needs to be shared? It was a journey of exhausting, long days of simply meeting the needs of people struggling for life, seeking asylum from the oppressions of their home countries, and leaving all in hope of a new life for themselves and their children.
From January 26, 2019, to February 10, 2019, I made this journey of the heart when I served at Nazareth Center, one of nine sites of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. I joined Sisters from several religious communities from across the United States who were volunteering at these sites.
Nazareth Center is across the alley from where the Sisters of Loretto offered overnight hospitality for Sister volunteers. One of the unexpected gifts I received was the brief opportunity to live and share in an inter-community setting. This proved very important for our evening sharing, and support of each other sustained us in all we were experiencing.
Sisters Mary Ondreyco, SNJM, and Mary Becker, SNJM, had arrived the week before and introduced me to all the tasks I would find myself doing for the two weeks. Our role was to welcome 50 to 100 refugee guests each day; help with the intake process; assist with plans for the next part of the guests’ journey; prepare meals; and distribute personal items such as towels and sheets, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and new sets of clothing. We also prepared bedrooms daily, figuring out who was leaving and who was coming.
We volunteer Sisters were a small part of those involved in Annunciation House: the full-time daily coordinators, out-of-town volunteers and local El Paso volunteers who provided meals, picked up and laundered bedding and towels, drove people to bus stations and airports, and made donations.
The Nazareth Center caters to families who come from various parts of Latin America. They arrive with the clothes on their backs and worn shoes and are hungry and thirsty, often with young children prone to illness. Through all this, they arrive with inner strength and hope.
I do not speak Spanish, which was a disadvantage. I was unable to listen to the stories of the guests. However, through a variety of ways, I found that I could indeed communicate while handing out towels and sheets, serving meals, and mopping floors alongside the refugee guests. We had many moments of laughter, and I found the refugees so willing to assist wherever they could. As Sisters, we came with experience, many of us in administration. However, we quickly learned that the only skill we really needed was compassion and a willingness to do whatever was needed at the moment. We set aside our desire to organize and became one with the chaotic and seemingly impossible task of meeting the present needs of those arriving day in and day out.
What does one need to be a volunteer at these hospitality centers? An open heart and mind are essential, as well as health, the ability to be on one’s feet for eight hours a day, and a willingness to “hang loose” and just enter into the moment. We volunteers were exhausted at the end of each eight-hour-plus day and indeed slept well.
I am most grateful to have had this experience of being with the refugees and those serving them. How will this experience affect or change my life? This is my discernment at this time, for one cannot have such an experience and not be touched deeply.
By Sister Cathy Olds, OP
Feature photo (top): From left, a kitchen volunteer, Sister Mary Ondreyco, SNJM, Sister Mary Becker, SNJM, and Sister Cathy Olds, OP, prepare to serve refugees at the Nazareth Center of Annunciation House.