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Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD, Reflects on Experience at Border

By Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD

September 24, 2019, Laredo, Texas – Responding to an invitation from Catholic Charities, I went to Laredo, Texas, for two weeks in August to volunteer at the migrant shelter, La Frontera. I was told ahead of time that the situation was very “fluid” as our government policy was constantly changing, and indeed, that was the case.

Last May, the shelter was receiving about 250 migrants on a daily basis, but toward the end of July, migrants were only being released from detention on the weekends when government buses were not available to transport them back to Mexico to await their court hearings scheduled for one month later. 

The weekend I arrived, only 60 migrants were released from the detention center after spending four days there in the most deplorable of conditions. This was after traveling for about a month from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with only the clothes on their backs and the name and address of a family member or other contact in the United States.

At the shelter, the migrants are provided with clean clothing, a shower, food, and lodging. Staff at the shelter helped our guests contact their relatives, arrange for bus tickets to their final destination, and transport to the bus station. 

A corridor in La Frontera Shelter

When migrants arrive at the shelter, they are very apprehensive and frightened about what will happen to them next, but they soon realize they are safe. Staff members report that when the women are allowed to go to the clothing room and spend time picking out clothes for themselves and their children, they start to feel that they are in control of their situation, being allowed finally to make decisions in a non-threatening environment. For us it seems like a small thing, but for them, to be able to choose a blue T-shirt instead of a red one is a small sign of returning to a normal environment.

About half of our guests required some medical attention, which was provided by Kelly Garcia, a volunteer pediatric nurse practitioner from Minnesota, and myself. We had a very small clinic space to work in, but we made do with what we had. Luckily for us, Kristan Schlichte arrived from Catholic Charities in Alexandria, Virginia, and responded to our wish list for basic supplies, such as an ice chest, a pill cutter, and a pill sorter. The lack of a sink with running water for hand washing was a challenge, but before my departure, plans were being made to transfer the clinic to a room in the shelter that was equipped with a sink, cupboards, and much more space.

It was heart-breaking to hear the stories that our guests told of the hardships they had to endure to travel so far, seeking freedom at last from violence in their native countries. Small children complained of headaches, stomach aches, and back pain, describing how they were given food they could not eat, not being able to take a shower or brush their teeth, and sleeping in cold rooms on a concrete floor while in the detention center.

Some of the adults had their medications taken away from them while they were in detention. We found that many had extremely high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar levels.

One man with a seizure disorder had his medicines confiscated. On the fourth day without his medications, he had a seizure and was sent to the hospital emergency room for treatment. He was sent the next day to our facility. He was so weak when he came to our clinic that staff members helped him to lie on the floor, as he did not have the strength to stand. He was refusing food for a few days, saying he had no appetite.

We got his proper medication and put him in an observation bed upstairs in the facility, while providing him with gentle hydration and nutrition. His 14-year-old daughter looked on. His condition improved after four days and he was well enough to travel by bus to be reunited with his wife in North Carolina. We provided him with a month’s supply of his medication and the phone number of a clinic he could call when he reached his destination so that he could continue to receive medical care.

Lucas and his daughter with Kelly Garcia, nurse practitioner, second from left, and Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD.

Before he left he thanked us profusely and asked to have a picture taken with us so that he could show his wife the people who helped him on his journey. He told us he was sure he would have died if we hadn’t been there to assist him when he was so ill. Lucas and his daughter each gave us a huge abrazo (hug) and when they left, we all had tears in our eyes. We cannot make up for their ill treatment along the way, but we can offer them a new sign of hope, bringing to life the mission of Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4:18: “announcing good news to the poor, proclaiming that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.”

For the past few weeks, the hallways have remained empty and the beds ready for new guests. Stories abound of migrants being returned to the streets in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, only to become victims of street gangs and drug cartels who take advantage of those who are defenseless and homeless. Many are being kidnapped and held against their will in “private” shelters, where they are held for ransom or human trafficking.

More than 20,000 asylum seekers have been sent back across the border to await their court hearings since the “Remain in Mexico” policy was announced. Our own State Department has posted a travel advisory about Nuevo Laredo, citing the enhanced risks of murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault. 

It was considered an emergency situation when the shelter was overflowing with more than 200 guests per day. Now, with no one being released from detention, we face a new emergency and need to respond to it.


Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD, and Kelly Garcia, a nurse practitioner, spent much of their volunteer time serving in the medical clinic at La Frontera Shelter in Laredo, Texas.

Growing Resiliency Seminar Focuses on Ways to Address Climate Crisis

September 24, 2019, Adrian, Michigan – The environmental crisis and ways to address it through resilient communities was the topic September 16, 2019, as the Adrian Dominican Sisters hosted its third symposium on resilient communities. The Growing Resiliency Symposium at Weber Retreat and Conference Center drew a full crowd of Sisters, Associates, partners, and interested community members. 

“I’ve been asked to give a context about the environmental crisis we’re in – the sense of urgency,” said Dr. Nancy Tuchman, the keynote speaker. “In my opinion, if we don’t get this right, it doesn’t matter what we do in the realms of justice and racism because we won’t have a planet.”

Nancy, the Founding Dean of the Loyola University-Chicago Institute of Environmental Sustainability, gave sobering reports on the latest scientific evidence of climate change and the environmental crisis. She cited the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which tracks how close Earth is to the “tipping points” in aspects of the environment such as climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, and biodiversity.

“You can harm the planet to a certain extent within certain boundaries,” she said. “We can extract resources to a limited extent and the Earth can rebound. … But if you exceed that tipping point, all these systems break down.” She said Earth is at the danger point in many aspects of the environment and we need to make changes before it’s too late. But she did add an element of hope, explaining that, with the banning of fluorocarbons years ago, Earth has retreated from the danger zone in the area of ozone depletion.

Dr. Nancy Tuchman, keynote speaker at the Growing Resiliency Symposium, speaks about the Planetary Boundaries graph on the screen that explains how close Earth is to tipping points in various areas of the environment.

Nancy issued a somber warning. The last report by scientists indicates that “we have 11 years to get off of fossil fuels or the climate will be spinning so out of control that we’d be in crisis management all the time.”

Our culture needs to change its understanding of our natural resources, Nancy said. The model of capitalism “is based on infinite growth – the gross national product always has to grow or we worry about recession.” Earth is finite, Nancy said, explaining that if everybody were moved out of poverty and lived a middle-class U.S. lifestyle, “we’d need five planet Earths. The people on the high end of the economy need to lower their lifestyle” to use fewer resources. “We should live today – plant trees, steward the environment – for seven generations out.”

Nancy noted that all levels of the human population – individuals, families, communities, organizations, businesses, cities, states, nations and the global community – need to get involved in working toward a “zero waste environment” and a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle. The United Nations is doing well in this area, and so are many individuals and communities, but the middle groups – such as some businesses, states and nations – need to do better. 

She compared the situation of today to the time of World War II, when the people of the United States rallied and car manufacturers stopped producing cars and focused on military vehicles. “That’s the kind of change that we need to see here, and we need to be all behind it and realize we’re in imminent danger,” she said.  

Much of the rest of the symposium focused on signs of hope – organizations that are working to bring about zero waste and sustainable, resilient communities. Nancy spoke of her own work at Loyola University’s Institute of Environmental Sustainability. Loyola University-Chicago began focusing on the environment in 2002 with a two-pronged approach: lowering the carbon footprint of the campus and education. 

Through the years, Loyola has lowered its carbon footprint through a number of changes to the campus. Older buildings were upgraded or replaced with energy-efficient buildings. Loyola collects rain water and uses it to water the lawns and greenhouse plants, as well as to flush toilets in an administrative building. Through a geothermal system involving 500 wells, water is chilled or heated and flows through pipes to cool or heat the buildings.

Loyola also reduced food waste by 60 percent, first by educating students to be intentional on what they select to eat and not to waste it. Wasted vegetable oil is now used to create biodiesel, which runs the university’s shuttle buses and is sold to other area universities and museums. 

In the area of education, Loyola University added environmental science to its curriculum. “Every student, regardless of their major, has to have some proficiency in environmental literacy,” Nancy said. Non-science students are required to take two science courses, including one on environmental issues. “Once they take an environmental course they usually come back to us for their second course” and learn to become change agents, Nancy said. 

Following Nancy’s talk, three representatives from the Center for Resilient Cities (CRC), based in Madison, Wisconsin, spoke on the resiliency and sustainability efforts of the organization as it works with small communities. Marcia Caton Campbell, Executive Director, said CRC was founded in 1996 and over the years has shifted its focus to resiliency and sustainability. “We also talk about ‘thrive-ability,’” she said. The organization values diversity, networking, and innovation in its work with communities. 

One of the innovations that community members developed with the help of CRC was Badger Rock. Originally Badger School, it was standing on 3.5 acres of land that had been vacant for years. The site now houses the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center to bring neighbors together to get to know one another and work together; Badger Rock Middle School, a charter school focused on environmental sustainability; and outdoor, year-round food production for the community through a community garden and greenhouses in what had once been a “food desert.” 

Marcia spoke of the special challenge she has as a white woman working with an African-American community. “I am white but what I think is crucially important for white people doing work with people of color is to come with humility, acknowledging white privilege and being a force to change it,” she said.

Sarah Karlson, Farm Manager and Garden Educator at Badger Rock Center, explained: “Our job is not to change the community but to work with them. We do our very best to come to our work from a community-driven place that involves deep listening. We are all about partnerships and resource sharing.”

Hedi Rudd, Director of the Badger Rock Neighborhood Center, noted that at first, some people stayed away from the Neighborhood Center because they didn’t feel welcome. “Now they feel welcome,” she said. “Now everything that takes place in that center is for the people. The programming that takes place is led by the people.”

The Growing Resiliency Symposium focused on two areas that the Adrian Dominican Sisters committed themselves to in their 2016 General Chapter: sustainability and working with others to form resilient communities.

Feature photo: Panelists at the Growing Resiliency Seminar were, from left, Hedi Rudd, Sarah Karlson, and Marcia Caton Campbell.

Videos below added 10/10/19.



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