Chappaqua residents Larry and Debbie Rose are not self-proclaimed humanitarians. Their actions, however tell a different story. As news of families in crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border reached a crescendo, the couple reconsidered their summer vacation plans. Instead, they booked tickets to McAllen, Texas, the town that’s gained notoriety for being home to the migrant detention center that has been separating families.
The decision to choose volunteerism was a simple one. Debbie explains, “We’ve had many passionate conversations about this topic and realized that while our children were at sleepaway camp, we have an opportunity. It sounds cliché, but we just wanted to make a difference. We went for it.” They identified the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, located a few miles from the detention center in McAllen as a place where they could help migrant families. “It was one of the few places accepting volunteers who were not attorneys or fluent in Spanish,” according to Larry.
Families in Crisis
The couple touched down in Texas and got acquainted with the respite center immediately after checking into their hotel. They were astounded by the scene that met them. Debbie recalls their first impressions, “We opened the door and found ourselves in the midst of a large, hot room, reminiscent of the DMV brimming with families. Within only ten minutes, a little boy about four years old took my hand and began rapidly speaking Spanish. I made out the word ‘agua’ and offered him water. In that moment it became real.”
With a tour of the facility, the Roses gained clarity over what they were witnessing. The respite center is pivotal to asylum seekers, providing each individual with a set of clothes including shoes, food, a shower and shelter to sleep as they await their futures. Larry elaborates, “We learned that these families had crossed the border, arrived at the detention center, and gained access to the respite center because they had a sponsor in this country. A volunteer would attempt contact with the sponsor. If contact was made and that sponsor could provide bus fare, that family could leave that afternoon.”
The Roses wasted no time assessing how they could add the most value, mingling and conversing with families and volunteers alike. “They desperately needed sneakers,” reports Debbie, explaining, “Everyone gets a new pair because they have literally walked from their starting point to the border.” Fortuitously, the Roses encountered a volunteer who pointed out the many teenage boys slumped over around the room. It was an eye-opening moment as Debbie says, “It was a situation that never crossed our minds and it was then that we decided to target teenagers in our efforts.”
With this knowledge, Debbie and Larry began the first of four visits to various supermarkets where they purchased items in bulk including toys, sneakers, pants and at least 100 loaves of bread. In the meantime, on Facebook, a grassroots movement was evolving at home. Of the phenomenon Debbie says, “Our goal was to directly help families at the border through our own volunteer efforts and monetary donations. This was not a fundraising effort, but many of our friends who couldn’t join us wanted to get involved. Then, their friends wanted to help and suddenly it was a domino effect. I ultimately posted my Venmo ID and we raised $6,300 in just a few days.”
While providing basic necessities was fulfilling, the Roses were most impacted by the children they met as they handed out the supplies they purchased. Debbie describes one young girl crying on her father’s shoulder, saying, “I simply gave her an Etch A Sketch and she didn’t shed a tear for the rest of her time there. Not only was this wonderful for the child, but it also provided relief for the parents who had just gone through this ordeal.” Similarly, Larry engaged with teenage boys by playing Jenga. He recounts the experience, “It started with one boy, but soon we had a serious Jenga tournament with several teams that lasted hours. During this time, one well-dressed boy reported, in perfect English, that his favorite toy at home was a remote control helicopter. It hit me that while these kids have nothing now, it wasn’t always that way. These are all families who had enough means to get out of their country. For them to have abandoned their lives with only the clothes on their back, things had to have been really bad.”
The American Spirit
In only four days, the Roses were able to reorganize the center’s food storage system, upgrade toys in the playroom and touch the lives of families in dire straits. Debbie says, “With the reputation of this country being unwelcoming, I wanted to be welcoming.” And, they weren’t alone as Larry explains, “Part of the untold story is the American spirit. It was truly a nationwide effort, with people from all over the country pitching in.”