Students participate in immersion experience at Texas-Mexico border

Back row: Jacqueline LaMastra, Rafaela Manoy, Sydney Ponti, Breana Hetzer, Kathy Sylvester, Director of Campus Ministry, AHA, SSND Associate. Front row: Gail Fair, Chair Social Studies, AHA; Marina Poire, Ava Santoro, Grace Cuttita, Ava Tripodi

Eight students from Academy of the Holy Angels (AHA), a SSND sponsored school located in Demarest, New Jersey, recently participated in a Mission Awareness Process (MAP) experience near the Texas-Mexico border. The group split time between San Antonio and McAllen, Texas, from June 13-18.

Under the guidance of Sister Regina Palacios, the students volunteered at several migrant facilities and heard from staff members and border patrol agents, while also learning about the support offered to migrants by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.


On our first day, we went to an outdoor market place, an authentic Mexican restaurant and the Alamo, and then came back to the convent to spend time with the sisters. The time spent with the sisters was something that really stood out to all of us. We learned about Sister Peggy, who left a legacy of kindness and service on the SSND and our school community. After hearing the stories about her, and the special relationship she shared with the sisters, Mrs. Sylvester and Mrs. Fair, we all feel more connected to her and the mission of SSND. Hearing about the sister’s individual experiences was something that was also influential for all of us. It was amazing to hear about their different causes, starts and religious journeys. Their journeys are so inspiring to us as it encourages us to pursue a life of service and devote time to help others who are in need. It was an incredible introduction to this trip and we are all very grateful to be here.

Day 2
In the morning, we went to Saint Peter’s and Saint Joseph’s (St. PJ’s) where we met with three groups of young migrant boys. Here, the boys told us about their journeys to the United States and their goals for the future. We saw their living conditions and classrooms. After hearing their stories, we played a game of volleyball against the boys. Although they won every game, we thoroughly enjoyed spending time with them! Later in the day, we drove four hours to McAllen, Texas, where we will be spending the majority of the rest of our trip. Before going to bed, we joined together with Sister Regina and Sister Bridget to reflect on our day. During our reflection, we prayed and shared how much of an impact this trip has already had on us. It is inspiring to see the migrants’ determination and courage when dealing with these dangerous conditions with no guarantee of staying.
– Ava Tripodi ‘24

Day 3
Today, we went to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. We were given a tour of the center before starting our volunteer work. We made sandwiches, did laundry, colored with the migrant children and packed clothing bags with items they needed. We were able to communicate with the migrants using the little Spanish we knew and hand gestures. We took a break for lunch and then returned to the center where we were met with a new group of individuals. Our second shift consisted mostly of packing clothes and coloring with the children. After our day’s work, we reflected on our experiences. Some of us shared how this center made us feel and what we learned. We also discussed what we plan to do once the trip is over. This experience has been challenging not only because of the language barrier, but because we are seeing how difficult their journeys were. Despite the difficult journey, the migrants still have a smile on their face. That smile radiates throughout the room. There was a sense of positivity and community while we were at the center.
– Ava Santoro ‘23


Day 4
This morning, we headed back to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Initially, we all spent time inside the center with the kids. Last night, we had the idea to bring a guitar and sing with the children. All of them immediately joined in to sing and dance with us. It was a very memorable experience bonding with the kids. It was incredible to us how joyful the kids were, even after the hardships they endured coming here.
– Jackie LaMastra ‘23

Day 5 (morning)
Today was our third and final day at the Respite Center, and it was a very bittersweet experience. Walking in, we saw the same little girl as the day before, and I was happy to receive a hug, but sad that she and her family hadn’t left yet. We then started singing and dancing with her and some of the other kids. It made me especially happy to see smiles on their faces in the midst of their difficult journey. The group then split up, some of us going to take orders and heading to the warehouse, while me and some other girls went to make sandwiches. It really showed us just how much work went into making the food each and every day, especially since there were such few workers besides us. Being able to help the migrants as this center has been so rewarding, and I am very grateful for this experience. I am sad to leave, but happy I was able to help some of the people there.
– Rafaella Manoy ‘23


Day 5 (afternoon)
Today, we met with immigrant attorney Miriam Aguayo, who was inspired to work with immigrants when her parents attempted to get her aunt a visa. We learned that during the pandemic, borders were closed and only emergency cases were allowed. Even those who entered the U.S. with a medical emergency were soon sent back to Mexico because of COVID-19. Additionally, we were shocked when we learned that the approval rate for immigrants from Mexico to get into the U.S. with an attorney is about 30%, meaning that if a migrant didn’t have an attorney, their chances of approval were lower than 30%. The presentation made by Miriam opened our eyes to the immigration process, but also made us realize the complexity of the process.
– Breanna Hetzer ’23

Day 6
Today, we visited the border wall and the Rio Grande River. As a group, we were able to touch the wall, and pray there for all of the migrants making their tough journeys. We noticed that the wall was about 20 feet tall and looked rather eerie. The wall was rusty and had slits that you could see through. We made the observation that the slits in the wall almost make it worse than not being able to see through it because something you want so much seems so close, yet so far away. We also noticed the several miles of desert terrain that would be difficult for one to go through. We tried to imagine anyone trying to scale the wall, especially after hearing stories of mothers throwing their children over the wall or others dying while trying to get over. Then we drove to a section of the Rio Grande River. Along the way we saw various border control agents and military officers which made us feel uneasy. Across the way, on the Mexico side, we noticed another border control agent in a tower observing the water, searching for migrants. This experience today was very disturbing and eye opening, as it was hard to imagine some of the immigrants we met having to go through the dangers of crossing the river or scaling the wall in hopes of finding opportunities in the U.S. or to escape from violence from their countries.
– Grace Cuttita ‘24