“The last stop on a long journey” reads the sign at the door of these LSS transitional foster parents
The following blog, by contributing writer Anne Basye, first appeared (9/3/2014) in Living Lutheran, the online publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Note: all names in this article have been changed.
A Transitional Home for Child Immigrants
When the doorbell rings in the middle of the night, Gloria and Luis Guerrero answer it with clean clothes, a toothbrush and a big hug.
At the door stands a social worker from Lutheran Social Services of the South and a child at the end of a long, hard journey.
Gloria and Luis, who live in Texas, are transitional foster parents for unaccompanied children from Central America who have crossed the border, hoping to be reunited with relatives in the United States.
The largest placement agency for children in Texas, Lutheran Social Services of the South is also a contractor for the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. When Lutheran Social Services of the South began ramping up its Texas shelters and transitional foster care programs in El Paso, Corpus Christi, and McAllen in order to care for thousands of new arrivals, the Guerreros responded.
They became certified foster parents to care for four children while the children’s mother, a close friend, resolved some challenges. When the family was reunited seven months later, the Guerreros closed their foster home. That, they thought, was that.
Then Lutheran Social Services of the South called.
Empty nesters, the Guerreros now shelter up to five children at a time in the bedrooms where their own kids once lived. In just six months, nearly 80 children, most under 12 years old, have bunked with them – a lot of toothbrushes to distribute, names to learn and tears to wipe.
Crossing two, sometimes three countries, these resourceful children have overcome many challenges on their journey. In the presence of this loving couple, they can finally let down their guard. “We tell them not to be afraid, that they will be safe and secure here, and loved, respected and treated right in our home,” says Luis. After a couple of days, they are “regular kids again, playing and joking.”
Weekday mornings, Gloria churns out eggs and tortillas while the kids get ready for the Lutheran Social Services of the South day program, where they learn some English and connect with medical and social services staff. Saturday, there are trips to the park; Sunday, the Guerreros bring whomever is in residence to their congregation.
The routine is comforting but short lived. Because all of the Guerreros’ foster children are “Category 1” children with a parent somewhere in the United States, the reunification process goes quickly. Lutheran Social Services of the South can track down Mom or Dad and arrange fingerprints and a background check (a federal requirement for parents of very young children) in just three days.
The Guerreros know a child is leaving when the day program sends him or her home with a new backpack. If the parent has bought a ticket for an early morning plane, the resident children say their goodbyes to one another the night before. When a nearby parent arrives by car, they can wave from their porch.
To help kids deal with transition, “I tell them, the chapter of your life in El Salvador or Honduras is now closed, and a new chapter will be opened here,” says Luis. “Often, they don’t want to leave, but we help them understand that we are a bridge helping them across to a new life.”
‘Love conquers everything’
The youngest children to turn up on the Guerreros’ doorstep were siblings 2 and 3 years old.
“We have grandchildren that are the same age, and we can’t imagine them going through something like this,” says Gloria.
The two children were very upset from being separated from the uncle who had accompanied them. “The younger boy was crying, ‘My uncle left me alone!’” remembers Gloria, who sits up with distraught youngsters until they fall asleep and comforts the ones who wake up crying in the middle of the night.
Grateful phone calls from reunited parents are common. “They say, thank you for taking care of my son, and we tell them they have a real good daughter or son and are blessed to have them,” says Luis.
Reunification is not the end of the story. Each child has been processed by the U.S. Border Patrol and has a “Notice to Appear” at a court hearing, often a year or two away.
Lutheran Social Services of the South plays no role in the ensuing immigration process, according to Mike Nevergall, vice president of Agency Advancement for Lutheran Social Services of the South. “We take care of kids who need a safe, loving place to stay,” he says. “Our goal is to identify a family member in this country who has a steady income and a place to live, so when we send these kids home with someone, we can be relatively assured that the child will be provided for.”
Luis feels the same way. “Our concern is the kids,” he says. “Whatever comes up in future for these kids we leave up to politicians and lawmakers. And we pray that things will go fine for them wherever they end up.”
“Like my grandkids, most of all they need love and people that care for them,” says Gloria, who sees this work as a ministry. “Love conquers everything.”
And so they keep answering the door.
[See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Stories/2014/09/140903-A-caring-stop-for-child-refugees#sthash.t2SiPIws.dpuf]