Actress, Save the Children Trustee Jennifer Garner on Her Life-Changing Experience Helping Families on the U.S.-Mexico Border
A few days ago, I traveled with Save the Children—I have been an artist ambassador for more than a decade and now serve on the board of trustees—to the tiny, rural, poor town of Deming, New Mexico. Just 30 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Deming is ground zero for migrant families and children—and the embodiment of what it means to be American.
We all have seen the news stories of families arriving from Central America at our border—scared, tired, hungry and sick. They love their home country, but are forced to flee gang violence. They have witnessed unspeakable brutality. Many have had death threats. They are desperate to survive. So they pack up their children and the few belongings they can carry and begin their journey north on foot. Many walk for 20 days straight, from as far away as Honduras, with little to no opportunity to bathe, eat a proper meal or get a good night’s sleep.
When families arrive in the U.S., they are taken into custody to begin the asylum process. And then they are released and left to find their way to their U.S. sponsor.
Here’s where Deming comes in. You see, shelters in El Paso are completely full, so now, families are dropped off in small towns along the border. One day, a group of families—many with small children—were left at the McDonald’s in Deming. No one knew they were coming or was there to greet them and point them in the right direction. So they made their way to a nearby church and knocked on the door. The priest answered—he must have been totally surprised—and that night alone, he housed 85 people in his church.
And the people kept coming.
So what did the people of Deming do? They took an old World War II hangar and converted it into a makeshift shelter. The fire department came in with their hoses and scrubbed it out. Other volunteers came to help. Together, they set up cots and gathered supplies – giving their own money and other resources to help total strangers.
Chris Brice, the town warden, said that Deming is “one of the poorest cities in the state… if we can do this, anyone can.” Since Mother’s Day, 7,000 people have been helped by this town of 14,000!
When my colleagues at Save the Children learned of Deming’s efforts, they scrambled to help. Save the Children is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and we know a thing or two about caring for kids and families. We sent a team of experts to Deming to help them make the shelter kid-friendly, with space to play, proper beds, clothes, diapers and more.
That may not seem like a big deal, but let me tell you why it is.
These people have been on the road for a long time and have felt unsafe for an even longer time. As I talked with parents at the shelter in Deming, their exhaustion and trepidation—and relief to have found safety in America—were palpable.
As families walked into the shelter and saw Save the Children’s area, filled with colorful toys and books and games, our staff and volunteers greeted them in their native language and assured them that this was a safe space. Hesitant parents asked how much it would cost for their children to play. When they were convinced that it was free, they sat right outside and watched, smiling as their kids finally had a moment to just be kids. Eventually—realizing their kids were safe and happy for the first time in weeks, months and possibly years—they passed out into the deepest sleep imaginable.
I read “Goodnight Moon” in broken Spanish, blew bubbles and marched in a parade—just like I would with my own kids, although definitely more gentle and quiet in my play. Eventually, the kids opened up into regular kids, right before my eyes.
We know how important play is to a child’s growth and development. It’s also important to helping kids recover from trauma and regain a sense of normalcy. While these families will only be in the shelter for a few days, that time can help them reset and restore before they begin the next leg of their journey.
The people of Deming have worked hand-in-hand with Save the Children to give these families that respite. They have treated every person who has arrived on their doorstep with care and kindness. Seeing them in action was a thing of beauty.
Chris Brice said it best when he told me, “Americans are welcoming. We’re going to take care of them as best we can.”
Whether you live near the border or hundreds of miles away, you can be part of the welcome wagon. Migrant families are living in communities across this great country of ours, and nonprofit organizations and churches are stepping up to help. With a quick internet search, I bet you can find a way to lend a hand in your community. I also encourage you to make a donation to Save the Children so we can continue our work in Deming and other towns along the border. Every little bit helps.
This essay was featured in the June 23rd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper is the paper of record for individuals who want to be Architects of Change, lead meaningful lives and Move Humanity Forward. To get inspiring and informative content like this essay delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.