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Associate Sharon Pikula Serves Immigrants at Welcome Center
Associate Sharon Pikula, center, stands with a large donation of shoes brought to the Welcome Center in Phoenix by a donor from San Francisco.

April 19, 2024, Phoenix, Arizona – In a place where many people might see hopelessness, Adrian Dominican Associate Sharon Pikula saw a heart-warming scene where people help one another and find joy and comfort in small matters. 

Sharon volunteered for a week at a welcome center for immigrants in Phoenix, Arizona, working with other volunteers to give immigrants who pass through the center time for respite and recovery. Typically, the immigrants come from a detention center run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or from other nonprofit organizations located near the border, she explained. 

The welcome center where Sharon served was established in a former elementary school building by various local nonprofit organizations, under the umbrella of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Sharon explained. The center has space for up to 400 people to sleep, but its primary aim is to offer temporary space for immigrants to “stabilize their situation – rest, get a new set of clothes, get a shower, [and enjoy] three meals a day,” she explained. The ultimate goal is to prepare them for journeys to the homes of their sponsors, family members or friends who reside in the United States. Typically, 175 to 300 immigrants pass through the welcome center each week, Sharon said. 

During her week at the IRC Welcome Center, Sharon worked three-hour shifts packed with activity: coordinating showers, preparing used clothing, working in the clothing room, serving meals, and offering any other service needed by the immigrants. Often after her shift, she and other volunteers shopped at local thrift stores for clothing, toiletries, and other necessary items to stock the shelves of the IRC Welcome Center. 

Sharon described the work as heart-wrenching. “Other than the clothes on [their backs] and maybe a backpack, that’s all they’ve got,” she said. Yet, during the orientation, the volunteers were told not to question the immigrants about their experiences to avoid re-traumatizing them. “Their recommendation was to give them as much autonomy as possible and not to throw questions at them,” Sharon said. “I tried to be as helpful as I could, but I did not push any questions … and just helped them get whatever they needed.”

During off-hours, Sharon stayed at the nearby house of Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. The experience was “very holistic in terms of being of service but also having space for yourself to take in what you were experiencing – time for prayer and reflection,” she said. She also spent part of her evenings gaining some insight into the plight of the immigrants by reading Solito, the memoir of Javier Zamora, who, in 1990, at the age of 9, traveled by himself from his native El Salvador to be reunited with his parents in the United States. 

Still, Sharon witnessed joy and hope. “One of the things you learn is that you may find yourself in some really tough situations, but you still see the humanity of people in terms of helping each other out,” she said. She gave the example of a man from Africa who, on watching Sharon clean off the tables before preparing a meal, stepped in to help her with this task. She also recalled the generosity of a man from San Francisco who traveled to Phoenix with a carload of donated shoes for the immigrants. “They were gone within a day,” she said.

Sharon also applauded the generosity of activists who advocate for the welfare of immigrants, even if they don’t necessarily work with “day-to-day direct service,” and spoke highly of the support she felt from Adrian Dominican Sisters and Associates who prayed for her and for the immigrants she served. “I really, full-heartedly believe that prayer support is deeply needed across the spectrum, whether you’re in direct service or the activist or whatever role,” she said. “We need that praying presence.” 

Sharon said volunteering at the IRC Welcome Center was part of her search to serve others. “As I’m moving into retirement, I want to do some service,” she said. She heard about the center from a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur in her parish, who had served at the center. Feeling that Phoenix was not too far from her home in Washington State, Sharon applied to volunteer at the welcome center. “I’m hoping in the later part of the year to return there,” she said. “It’s a very tender and vulnerable place.”

Sharon has some advice for anyone who would like to volunteer at a welcome center for immigrants. “Be open to the experience,” she said. “If you have some prayer or spiritual practices, make sure you’re doing them regularly. Watch for the simple things. It’s not the grandiose stuff – it’s paying attention to the simple needs of the people and allowing them to be as autonomous as possible and giving them space.”

Listen to Sharon’s Holy Week reflection on her experience at the welcome center.
 

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Avatar  basketball legends 3 weeks agoReply

I am sure it is a great feeling to help immigrants and to be able to meet their needs, I appreciate you from the bottom of my heart.



 

 

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