In stark contrast to the first two rounds of my service term with Americorps NCCC, round 3 has been nothing but curve balls. The team came to Deming, NM expecting to build a test vineyard and work on landscaping at a park development project. We have now been here for just over one month and have done none of the above and a little of everything else. The team and I started this week with a meeting at the charter school, outlining some upcoming projects the team would tackle, but by the end of that meeting all was swept under the rug and new game plan was under way. Our meeting ended with the sponsor, Mr. Lyons saying "Why don't you swing by the fairgrounds and see if they could use your help", such a casual statement, but the one sentence that may alter the trajectory of the rest of our time here - but first let me give you a little background.
Last week Saturday, the US Border Patrol notified the city of Deming that they would be dropping off roughly 150 asylum-seeking immigrants in the city. Due to a recent influx of migrants fleeing from harsh and dangerous conditions in their home countries, mostly Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the port in El Paso has been overloaded. With detention centers overflowing and resources lacking, the Border Patrol chose to relocate some of these immigrants to other cities, in hopes they would eventually move on to their sponsors across the United States. This sounds all well and good on paper, but the brief time period between decision making and action taken was the problem, Deming was not prepared.
The plan from Border Patrol was to drop the asylum-seekers (mostly family units), including multiple young children, at either McDonalds or the (very small) Greyhound bus stop in town. City officials quickly reacted, recognizing that this was not a viable solution, and created plans to enact a temporary shelter to house these individuals and offer assistance. Space was found at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds and early Sunday morning buses of asylum-seeking immigrants were transported there. Various City Officials from Deming shifted their focus to this location, along with volunteers from a variety of backgrounds (law enforcement, military, medical, government, education, etc.). These immigrants require assistance in many forms: contacting their sponsors, booking transportation, obtaining additional clothing (all they owned was on their backs), and the most basic of human needs, a decent meal. This is what my team and I walked into early Monday morning as we realized Mr. Lyon's suggestion of, "stopping by" was a vast misjudgment to the need required at the fairgrounds.
Upon entering the Fairgrounds City Officials and Volunteers looked at us with a mixture of relief, exhaustion and hope; reinforcements had arrived. The first few women I spoke with apologized for the disorganization, they had worked through the night and were running on fumes. They asked if any of us were Spanish speakers and of course all eyes went to Haley, my ATL (assistant team leader) and definitely the most well versed of any of us. She was quickly whisked off to the medical check-in area to help the EMT with translation, while the rest of us were told to "play with the kids, walk around, see what's needed". At this point there were [only] 100 people in the shelter, little to no organization set up, and so much left to the unknown as far as what was to come. The team divided, some playing catch or soccer with kids, a few others engaged in a giant Jenga game, and a few pulled to help with clothes sorting and distribution. At one point I was asked if I had anyone else on the team who knew Spanish and could assist with the clothing, and I somehow volunteered myself. Being 13 years removed from any type of Spanish education I have no idea what I was thinking, but I guess my heart spoke for me in that I was sure as hell going to try. Hours later I was repeating what were now familiar phrases "Qué necesitas?" "No hay más pequeñas" "Es posible que más tarde..." I knew half of what I was saying was grammatically incorrect, I was likely conjugating my verbs wrong or putting my sentences in a silly order (not to mention the random Korean I'd thrown in), but people could understand me and at that moment that's all that mattered.
Later in the day I was relocated to the kitchen and my eyes were opened to an entirely new beast, feeding hundreds of people almost entirely off donations, with the resources of one small refrigerator and no working stove. At the time I had no idea, but this was about to become my new "office" for the following week, and we were going to make it work. There were piles of bottled water, rice, chips, bread, granola bars and fruit, and a few eager volunteers determined to turn this all into a healthy meal for the individuals outside our doors. To be honest my first few days in the kitchen have blended into one; a faint memory of stacks of (unusable, due to causing stomach problems) pizza, donuts and other miscellaneous items and lots of people saying lots of different things.
Without question the team returned on Tuesday and we began to realize we'd be spending the week (if not longer) at the fairgrounds. During the first few days, while the number of individuals at the shelter were lower, I began to see familiar faces and welcoming smiles upon arriving each morning. I made one friend, a very endearing little boy who I eventually beat in a game of "piedra papel tijeras" aka "rock paper scissors" a game I've now mastered in three languages. It was the moment I learned his name, Edwardo, that I knew I had made a mistake "don't get too attached" I told myself. I continued on though, I made sandwiches, halved fruit, assembled snack bags for the next bus ride, sometimes to destinations as far as Chicago or New York, and I tried as best I could to offer a warm smile or nod of encouragement to those who needed it a lot more than I.
By Wednesday at the shelter I had learned names, there was Bonnie and Bob whose energy I envied, Barbara Jim and Brian a family force that kept the kitchen up and running, and many others: Oscar, Sally, Jobe, and so on. It seemed like everyday we'd create a system, only to start it all over from scratch again the next morning. One day we were told "no oatmeal" and the next that's what was served for breakfast, donations poured in, but roughly 1/4 of them needed to be redirected to churches or food pantries as we were unable to use or prepare the food at our location. In the mix of all of this was balancing the work we had been doing at the Deming Cesar Chavez Charter High School, the seniors were graduating this week and we were invited. Wednesday evening was the senior awards dinner with Thursday being the graduation ceremony. After an 8 hour day (longer for a few) we attended the senior awards dinner at DCCCHS and while I was touched by the emotion and student focused attention of the event, I was also battling hunger and fatigue.
By Thursday everyone was tired, whether they wanted to admit it or not, the work of the week was wearing on the team and tensions were beginning to rise. I overheard a few bickering matches and was half of one myself, having to walk away, retreating to my safe space in the kitchen and fighting back tears (not something I normally do). I was frustrated when only two of my team members were willing to break for a few hours to attend the graduation ceremony, but wasn't about to fight them on it and was at least proud of myself for finding a balance. Later in the afternoon, after returning to my kitchen and packing more snack bags for the road, I was asked to translate, "There's this adorable little boy that needs something, but I don't know what it is". Approaching the door to the kitchen I spotted Edwardo and jokingly said "He want's me", and I wasn't wrong. He grabbed my hand and said "Voy a salir!" [I'm leaving]. I wasn't sure which emotion to have, gratitude that he had come to find me, excitement that he and his mother were on to the next leg of their journey, or sadness at having to say goodbye.
I followed him to the entrance, blew bubbles with him and another little boy, and eventually we said our goodbyes. He reached for a hug and I didn't hesitate to scoop him up into my arms, few words were exchanged, but none were needed, a hug and a smile between his mother and I said enough. I walked away from the bus and in passing saw Haley who asked where I was headed, with a laugh I responded, "to cry" pretending to play tough, but I couldn't and the tears came. It wasn't but a few hours later I passed another man in line to leave, one of our helpers from the week, always ready to empty a trash bag, sweep the floor or carry the heavy boxes. I approached him to say goodbye and thank him for his help, but it was his response of "no, gracias para ti" [no, thank you] that got me, my third set of tears. Thursday was a hard day.
By the evening I was fighting off cold symptoms, refusing to believe I was sick, knowing I couldn't take the following day off after having promised Bonnie I'd be there for breakfast duty so she could have some time to rest (after having put in multiple 12 hour shifts). I got to bed early and was up again at 6, on site by 7 and serving meals not long after. Things were beginning to operate more smoothly, those of us that had been in the kitchen for a few days had a system and knew how to work off each other, but this was often disrupted. New volunteers would drop in, and while much appreciated, it was sometimes hard to bring them up to speed or explain the "why" of how some things were done. Why can't we serve the beans from last night's dinner that stayed out all night? Why can't they eat pizza? Why can't we give them more than one piece of fruit? Why...why...why? In a place of such chaos and at times no direction someone has to put their foot down, and for good or bad I was often the one to do it. I'm not afraid to say no, and if that makes me the bad guy for the day then so be it. I definitely butted heads with a few other volunteers, but (sorry to stay) their feelings were not of my utmost concern at the time. We made it through the day without mishap though, had our first meals where we didn't run short on food, and came up with a system for the days to come. I can't help but wonder though, as I sit here writing, if even a portion of that system was put into place as I took Saturday off, a day to sleep, fight off my cold, and re-energize for the week(s) to come.
I received questioning from fellow Team Leaders as to whether I received approval to be working at the shelter, "Isn't this too political for Americorps?" Working under the overarching umbrella of the federal government always comes with a wealth of fine print, and this situation is no different. I spent half of Friday and a portion of today contacting those powers above me who need to grant us approval. An official amendment has to be made to our sponsors application which can then be sent off to our regional director to be approved. As of yet there is no final decision as to how much of our remaining two months will be spent on these efforts, but I'm confident it will be at least a portion. Some could argue that we're not helping the community, but I'd beg to differ. Seeing the amount of community resources and manpower required in these efforts, it only makes sense that some of our efforts too, would be redirected here.
A Year of Service
My life, being anything but predictable, has taken another turn. Rather than moving to Jeju, South Korea - my original plan for Fall '18, I'm going to test drive Denver, CO and its surroundings, an area people just keep telling me "I'd love".