During National Migration Week, there is an opportunity to reflect on the circumstances confronting migrants, including immigrants, refugees, children, and victims and survivors of human trafficking. The history of the School Sisters of Notre Dame is inextricably connected to the immigrant experience. SSND initially came to the U.S. as immigrants to respond to the educational needs of German immigrants.
For over 185 years, the SSND commitment to uphold the dignity of all people has led us to serve immigrant communities through education and other ministries. SSND also offers a program called Mission Awareness Process (MAP). The SSND MAP experience is designed to offer a concrete experience of solidarity with people of diverse cultures and Earth. The goal is to provide a transformative experience bringing all to a fresh awareness of our oneness, our interconnectedness and our interdependence.
Last summer, a group of eight high school students from Academy of the Holy Angels in Demarest, New Jersey, spent the first week of their summer break in south Texas for a MAP trip. During the experience, the students ministered at migrant facilities while getting a first-hand look at how the School Sisters of Notre Dame help migrants at the Texas-Mexico border.
Below are reflections from some of the participants, who share the impact these encounters have made on their awareness of the suffering of others.
Grace Cuttita, senior at Holy Angels Academy
I decided to attend the Mission Awareness Process (MAP) at the Texas/Mexico border to better my understanding of the immigration process. Like many people, I often hear the news on TV talking about immigration, border control, “the wall” and many other topics associated with immigration. Although I hear it being discussed, my knowledge of the immigration process was not thorough or detailed. For me, personally, I learn best when I experience something directly. I enjoy working hands-on and observing change in front of my very eyes. I also find great joy and comfort in helping others, especially those who truly need it. I enjoy the thought of service and knew this MAP experience would only come once in a lifetime, so I decided to accept this offering.
To speak chronologically, my first impactful experience occurred at St. Peter-St. Joseph’s Children’s Home. St. PJ’s, as it is known for short, is a shelter for unaccompanied minors in San Antonio, Texas. During our time here, we spoke to some of the boys, whose ages ranged from about 10-18 years old. We visited their dorm, where we asked about their experiences crossing the border. Many of them spoke about violence and poverty in their home country. Others recalled leaving due to educational or employment reasons. Another reason for leaving their countries was to meet up with family already living in the United States. The boys spoke about going a few days without food or water and having to sleep in the mountains for several days during their journeys. They also told us about losing important items such as cellphones, or having had them stolen and not being able to communicate with their families for several days.I remember an older boy sharing that he had to swim across the Río Grande River, and he almost drowned. This was eye-opening to hear, as I couldn’t imagine anyone having to go through this, especially at such a young age. My time at St. PJ’s was incredibly impactful. I found it more influential and powerful to hear these stories from the boys themselves as opposed to having them read to me or reported through the news. Although it was terrible to hear what these boys have gone through, I was glad they were safe at St. PJ’s and getting the help they needed.
At the respite center in McAllen, Texas, there were many different incidents while attending to the children there that really affected me. Upon entering the center one day, our group noticed a small child in nothing but a diaper. Before helping with anything else, we immediately delegated a few girls to go to the warehouse to get him clothes. The young boy’s mother was very grateful and appreciative of us. Another example occurred while we were playing with the kids, and I noticed a crying girl in a shirt and diaper. Immediately and without hesitation I picked her up. Her cries subsided, and she buried her head into my shoulder.
On another day, we brought the kids bags of toys. As I began to hand out toys, children along with some adults started to swarm me, their hands grabbing into the bag. I tried to pull the bag away so that there would be enough for everyone, but I could not move. This experience was very overwhelming. At only five feet tall, people towered over me, and I struggled to think of what to do. Just then, my peer Breanna came to help and took the bag from me. Kids broke away from me as they quickly made their way to Breanna. After the chaos of handing out toys, it was gratifying to see the children enjoying themselves and playing. Some kids would get upset when the toys would break or a kid would steal another kid’s toy. When this happened, I would quickly make the child a paper airplane out of the color of their choice, and their sadness would subside.
Throughout our time at the respite center, we were greeted by the same girl every day. She played with us, and we enjoyed each other’s company. She especially loved giving us high fives and coloring. On our last day, this girl was still at the center. I wished to say goodbye, but unfortunately I was not able to. That night, during our prayer and reflection time at the convent, I broke down. I bawled as I expressed my regret at not saying goodbye to her. I cannot forget her face, along with the faces of many others from the respite center and St. PJ’s, and I believe I will never forget them.
Throughout our time at the respite center, we were sent to work at the warehouse, an emptied store filled with clothing donations for the center. At the warehouse, we were given a piece of paper with the clothing needed for each family or individual person. Oftentimes, it was difficult to retrieve correctly sized items due to a lack of inventory. Many people would come into the respite center barefoot or in shoes with holes or rips in them. Because of this, people would often ask for shoes from the warehouse, but there were only a few pairs to choose from. This was hard for me because I wanted to help everyone, but I couldn’t. If someone asked for something we did not have, there was nothing we could do, which was very hard for me.
On our last day in McAllen, we drove with Eli, a local resident, to the border wall and Río Grande River. Upon our arrival, we walked up the hill and looked up at the tall, disturbing wall. The wall was a brown rusty color with slits in it, making the vast desert visible. We prayed at the wall together and, in doing so, I tried to imagine the seemingly impossible task of anyone attempting to climb over it. I thought of the boys at St. PJ’s and their stories of crossing the border. I also thought of the people at the Respite Center, especially the small children that we met there. At the river, we walked down to the water, where we could see Mexico across the way. Although Eli told us the river can get very narrow at some parts, the current is very strong, making it very difficult to cross. That night, I prayed for the people who were crossing the river and prayed that they have a safe journey.
I have taken Spanish for four years now, and although I am not fluent, I am able to communicate with a Spanish speaker for the most part. It was difficult at times, because at the respite center a lot of migrants would come up to me and ask for something, and I did not know what they were saying. After asking a few people who knew a little more Spanish, I would figure it out and assist their needs. Also, while working with the kids, a lot of them would fight over toys, coloring books, crayons and more. I would try to stop it, but the only word I knew at the time was “no.” By the end of the week, my Spanish improved quite a bit, and I was able to assist people more. I plan to continue my Spanish studies and hope to be fluent in the language one day.
In many ways, my classmates and the boys at St. PJ’s were very similar. We both go to school and enjoy playing games. To be more specific, after meeting the boys, we played some volleyball. Although we did not do very well and lost to the boys, we all had a very fun time. After that, we leisurely played basketball and talked about school. We attempted to talk to them in Spanish, and they tried to talk to us in English. We all agreed that learning each other’s language was difficult.
On the other hand, we were different in important ways. St. PJ’s is a gated center, meaning the children may not leave. For me and my classmates, we are not confined. We can go see a movie or go to the mall or a restaurant. At first, I thought St. PJ’s was very impressive, and it exceeded my expectations. I didn’t expect the boys to have as much as they did, but once I found out that they couldn’t leave, I was disappointed and upset. I felt grateful that I was able to leave the center that day and thought about the boys that couldn’t as the car pulled out of the parking lot.
I am thoroughly impressed and grateful for the work of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Their mission and work inspires me to help others and recognize God in all. To speak more specifically, the work of Sister Regina Palacios, with whom we stayed and traveled during our trip, greatly influenced me. Sister Regina works at St. PJ’s as a therapist for the children, most of whom carry past trauma. Sister Regina lives with a handful of other Sisters at a convent in San Antonio.
As our group arrived on our first day, we were greeted by all smiles. The Sisters were all so delighted to see us and grateful for our presence. They took us on a tour of the house and showed us to our room. There I noticed neat, made-up beds with our towels folded on top and placed at the foot of the bed. Everyone was given notebooks with their name on it to document and journal our experiences on our trip. There was also a poster hanging on the wall which read “Welcome” with our names around it in colorful markers. This made me feel so comfortable staying with the Sisters. This showed me how much the Sisters cared about our visit and how they wanted everything to be perfect for us.
Later that night, we all gathered in the living room, where the Sisters talked about their experiences in their ministry. Throughout our time at the convent, the Sisters made sure we were not hungry or thirsty, and oftentimes checked up on us to make sure we were okay. At the end of our trip, they even woke up early to say goodbye before we had to leave to catch our flight. It was hard saying goodbye, and I miss them already. Sister Bridget Waldorf, another SSND that accompanied us in McAllen, was comical and oftentimes lightened the mood when talking about a serious topic. I also remember her sitting on the floor and playing with small children at the respite center. Although she didn’t know much Spanish, she showed her dedication to help the children and was still able to communicate with them. Sisters Regina and Bridget, as well as the handful of Ssisters I met in the San Antonio convent, were truly angels. All of their abundant kindness and selflessness did not go unnoticed, and I sincerely thank them all.
Kathy Sylvester, SSND associate and Director of Campus Ministry at Holy Angels Academy
The Mission Team at Academy of the Holy Angels (AHA) chooses to participate in Mission Awareness Process (MAP) experiences because it gives our students a real opportunity to learn about School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) and the various ministries they participate in. By spending time with the sisters in prayer and daily living, students get a glimpse of what SSND life is like, as well as the SSND commitments to oneness.During our trip, we began and ended the week staying with five sisters who live at the convent in San Antonio. They were gracious hosts feeding us, welcoming us and sharing stories of their lives with us. When we returned from McAllen at the end of the week, they eagerly listened and helped the students process all they had experienced during the week.
We also spent time working with Sister Regina Palacios at St. Peter’s and St. Joseph’s (St. PJ’s) in San Antonio. Through our interaction with some of the kids staying at PJ’s, the students became acutely aware of the plight of unaccompanied minors who cross our borders, and the journeys and challenges once minors arrive in the U.S. To say that the kids’ stories were heart wrenching was an understatement. Through conversation with some of the young boys (thanks to our translator, Marina Poire), our students learned about their lives and desire for a better life. We were all amazed at the positive attitudes of the boys in spite of what they had been through. Sister Regina pointed out that these boys most likely have been working since around age seven in their native countries. It was a real adjustment when they came to the U.S. and realized children do not work until they are older and have attained some education.This particular MAP trip also offered the students a hands-on experience working alongside the sisters, especially at the Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. From the students’ reflections, it is obvious this was transformative. I was so proud of our young women and the way they stepped up to do whatever was asked. From playing with the children and making sandwiches and travel bags, to filling clothing orders and cleaning up, the students were attentive and eager to help. It was hard work, emotionally exhausting, and at times, frustrating. The students came away with an awareness of how complex the situation at the border truly is. Listening to the stories of families they encountered, and doing what they could to help, no matter how small, was important. I know the students were frustrated that there was not enough clothing, especially shoes, to give to those that needed them. I overheard our students talking about finding ways to bring this need back to the larger AHA community in the fall.
In addition, the students spent time with an immigration attorney and visited the border wall and the Rio Grande River. They learned even more about the complexity of the migration/immigration situation. We had many discussions about what can be done to make this system more humane and welcoming.
An added benefit of this experience was that we were also joined by Sister Bridget Waldorf, a member of the SSND Vocation Team. Over the course of the week, Sister Bridget worked and learned alongside our students, while sharing what it means to be part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
Throughout the week, we had a true MAP experience in that we formed community, prayed and ministered to those less fortunate with our SSND family.