September 28, 2016, Homestead, Florida – In her ministry as a nurse practitioner, Sister Patricia Erickson, OP, offers health care and compassion to children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who have crossed the Mexico-U.S. border on their own to find a home in the United States.
Sister Pat ministers at a specially designated facility at the Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida where up to 1,500 unaccompanied children can be housed for 35 days.
“The idea is to bring them to this facility and then place them with a sponsor eventually so they can stay in the States,” Sister Pat explained. During the child’s stay, the government checks his or her sponsors in the United States – usually a family member – to make sure that the home is safe and appropriate for the child. “Once they’re placed with their sponsor, their legal status is addressed.”
In her role as a nurse practitioner, Sister Pat works with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. She fulfills one of two roles, depending on her daily assignment.
On some days, she works with children who have just come to the site. During that time, she determines whether they need immediate medical care or if they have any skin diseases. They also receive nine vaccinations “so that they’re up to speed with the rest of the children with whom they’re going to go to school eventually in the States.” She also gets their medical history, their family’s medical history and tests them for communicable diseases.
Sister Pat can also be assigned to work in the “daily living site” of the facility, offering primary care to children who request it for chronic diseases, sports injuries, or other conditions. The children are “very well cared for,” she explained. “They go to school. They have sports, all the clothes they need – just about anything you can imagine.”
Because the facility is a transitional shelter, the number of children who reside there fluctuates at any given time. As some children come to the facility, others are released to their new homes with their sponsors. As of this writing, more than1,000 children live in the facility.
Sister Pat said that many circumstances can lead to children traveling unaccompanied to the United States. For example, she said, the parents might have come to the United States to work and raise money for the family and are now sending for their child, who may have been left at home with other relatives. In other cases, the child might have other relatives in the United States, and the parent might send him or her to the United States, where they feel their child will have a better life.
Children often face danger and hardship during what could be a six-month journey from their native country to the border. She spoke of one girl who, after losing her shoes, continued to walk in spite of splinters in her foot, which became infected. Many ride on top of freight trains – known as la bestia – from Central America to the Mexican-U.S. border, risking severe injury or death.
Other children come to the border with the help of “coyotes” – people who smuggle others across the border. In many cases, the “coyotes” exploit the children – sometimes taking them part way and then leaving them or selling them into human trafficking. The danger can be so extreme, Sister Pat said, that she has heard of some young girls who take birth control pills to prevent pregnancy in case they are raped.
In addition to providing health care, Sister Pat explained that her ministry involves being of whatever service she can be to children who have faced such a long and perilous journey. One of her biggest challenges is the regulation that prohibits her from touching or hugging the children – at a time when many of them need the reassurance of the human touch – and that prohibits her from asking questions about the circumstances that led them to the facility. When children want to talk, she said, she refers them to their case worker.
Still, Sister Pat can give the children emotional support when they go through difficult times. She recalled one boy who refused to get out of bed and was sent to the infirmary. She discovered from his file that he had witnessed his brother’s murder and was depressed.
“We kept him in the infirmary, not for any physical reason, but so that he could get more attention,” Sister Pat said. “At the meals I would go sit on the bed and just talk to him and encourage him to eat, and I would ask him about sports and school [at the facility]. Eventually, after 24 hours, he was feeling better and he went back to the dorm with the other boys.”
Sister Pat sees her ministry as a two-way street. She has been deeply touched and has learned from the children’s resilience in the face of hardship.
“I learn from them, just by their demeanor, their attitude, how they act,” she said. “They smile. They’re happy. And I don’t know how they do that, under the circumstances.”
Sister Pat learned about the position from a brief announcement on television, and felt drawn to apply. “I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to have this kind of experience with children who had been on a journey like this,” she said. “I will never understand what it was like for them, but in some way, just to be with them, that’s a gift to me.”
While her ministry is gratifying, Sister Pat said she can’t help but being concerned about the “other” children who are not given the same “special status” as those she works with — those in Central America, Nicaragua, Belize, and Mexico. She wonders what happens to them when they cross the border alone.
“I have thought and prayed long and hard about putting this information in writing,” she said. “But when I talk about this, I realize that people do now know about this project, which is totally sponsored and funded by the federal government. It is a wonderful opportunity for these children – they are safe and especially cared for. But what about the ‘others?’”
Reflecting on an article by Ilia Delio in Global Sisters-National Catholic Reporter of August 16, 2016, “Is religious life attentive to Jesus?” Sister Pat reflects on the quote, “…to live in a radical commitment to the Spirit is to live in the anxiety of now…one who lives on the edge of uncomfortable, the uncertain…” Sister Pat said, “This speaks to me not only of our commitment to justice but also of the example of the children on their journey.”
February 19, 2016, San Jose Nueva Ecjia, Philippines – The challenges to family life that Sister Bibiana “Bless” Colasito, OP, encounters in her ministry as counselor and her work on the diocesan Commission on Family Life are familiar to many Americans: poverty, drug addiction, absent parents, domestic abuse, and same-sex attraction. But Sister Bless ministers half a world away from people in the United States.
Sister Bless, a certified counselor, has been ministering since January 2015 on the Commission on Family Life in the Diocese of San Jose Nueva Ecjia – a five-mile journey from many of the other Sisters in Our Lady of Remedies Mission Chapter, who are based primarily in the region of Pampanga, the Philippines.
“With so many problems affecting family life today, it’s really a big challenge for the Commission to help families cope with their struggles,” Sister Bless explained. She pointed to poverty as a major factor in many of these problems.
One of the major consequences of this poverty, Sister Bless explained, is that one of the parents finds work in another country to support the family. The children of these Overseas Filipino Workers show their stress by their behavior at school. “They do crazy things – such as fighting or stealing – just to catch the attention” that they don’t have from their absent parents, she explained. In many cases, parents try to make up for the lack of physical closeness by buying materials and technology, which only distract the children, particularly in the classroom setting. Children who are separated from their parents are also often angry, often showing the anger through fighting or other unruly behavior, she added.
Sister Bless noted other problems that many Filipino families face: the rampant presence of drugs in the Philippines, leading to addiction and, in some cases, the need to steal to pay for the drugs; isolated cases of incest and sexual abuse; the influence of the media, which can undermine family values; and lack of faith formation, sometimes leading families to skip Mass on Sundays and instead go to the mall.
Sister Bless noted good points and positive practices in family life in her diocese, but added that the morality of family life is being degraded because of some media influences. “We all believe that family life is basic,” she said. “We believe that problems in the society are found in family life. That’s why we’re going into the formation of families.”
One of Sister Bless approaches in this matter is to offer individual, marriage, and family counseling. She gave the example of a married couple who are facing problems in their marriage. To help preserve the marriage and the family, she provides counseling to the husband and wife, helping them to face their own personal issues so that they can better function as a couple. “It’s easier to separate because it does not touch the personal issues,” she said. “But if you love your vocation and you want to grow as a person, that means you will have the courage to go into personal processing.”
In addition to her counseling, Sister Bless and the Commission on Family Life are offering a one-year formation program for families within the 22 parishes of the diocese. The program was launched in November, the beginning of the diocese’s Year of the Family.
The formation program has been designed to focus each month on a different issue that families face. Focuses could be, for example, on families of an Overseas Filipino Worker, families of farmers, and families of prisoners. Sister Bless offers these programs through the work of a core group of five couples – and through parish coordinators who offer the monthly program in their own parish. In addition to this program, Sister Bless continues to offer her services as a counselor to those who need the extra psychological support.
Sister Bless acknowledged the tremendous challenge of trying to form families in the Catholic faith in the face of so much cultural influence that runs counter to the Gospel. “But I still feel that this is the least we can do for the mission of Jesus,” she said. “This might be a big work, but this is still nothing compared with the call to do mission for the Church today.”
January 5, 2016, New Orleans, Louisiana – Traditionally, people think of ministry as a full-time, long-term effort by priests, sisters, and lay ministers – as involvement in such areas as education, health care, or parish ministry. But in the past years, sisters and lay men and women have made a difference in the lives of thousands of people through a week-long volunteer effort.
Nuns’ Build was established by Adrian Dominican Sister Mary Keefe, OP, in response to the needs of the people of New Orleans who had been afflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. She moved to New Orleans in November 2007 and came in contact with St. Bernard Project, an organization that focused on rebuilding homes in New Orleans. After hearing about Women’s Build – a project to encourage women to volunteer to rebuild homes and to raise money for families that could not afford the necessary materials – she suggested a similar project, Nuns’ Build.
The first Nuns’ Build was scheduled in early October 2009. Since then, the annual, week-long project – involving Sisters, family members, and parishioners has been held the week before Thanksgiving. Adrian Dominicans have been involved in every Nuns’ Build since.
The most recent Nuns’ Build drew the service of Adrian Dominican Sisters Dorothy (Dot) Dempsey, Carol Elya, Carol Fleming, Jean Keeley, and Joan Mary. Accompanying them were about 15 to 20 parishioners of St. Eulalia Parish in Chicago, as well as friends and relatives of Sister Carol Fleming.
Nuns’ Build is not always an easy, comfortable experience. Both Sisters Dot and Joan spoke of the challenge this year of living in a dormitory-like setting of a homeless shelter, in bunk beds. In previous years, they had stayed in houses set aside for the use of the volunteers.
Nuns’ Build also involves hard, physical labor, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. each day. Sister Dot and Sister Joan spent the week working on the windows of the house assigned to them – scraping paint off the windows inside and out, washing the windows throughout the house – as well as working on the molding and putting the primer on the window sills.
“We really made a big start,” said Sister Dot, who has served in eight Nuns’ Build weeks. She added that the family had been expected to move back into their home by Christmas.
Sister Joan, who has brought in at least 15 to 20 parishioners from St. Eulalia’s each year to participate in Nuns’ Build, said she explains to the parishioners that their work was “helping poor families, senior citizens, who didn’t have the money to rebuild” after Katrina. “Our volunteering was providing the labor costs so that they wouldn’t have to pay that.”
While much work remains to be done, the Sisters spoke of the progress that they had noted over the years. “New Orleans looks so much better than it did when we started seven years ago,” Sister Joan said. Sister Dot has also seen improvement in the transportation system, which is again running, and in the return of the street signs.
In particular, Nuns’ Build makes a difference in the lives of people whose homes were rebuilt. Every year, the Nuns’ Build experience has included a ribbon-cutting for newly restored houses as the family prepares to move back home. Sister Joan especially remembers the case of a grandfather who had lost his portion of a two-family “shotgun” house to Katrina. Through the efforts of the St. Bernard Project and Nuns’ Build volunteers, he was finally able to move into a single-family house. She recalled with joy how much the man beamed at being welcomed into his new home – and the joyful gathering and welcoming spirit of his neighbors.
Nuns’ Build has also brought a sense of community among the volunteers. “The secret to the success of Nuns’ Build is that we bonded as a group over the years to be a family working together,” Sister Joan said. “We shared everything and worked together.”
The volunteers also feel connected to the people of New Orleans and a sense of their welcome and gratitude. The local Knights of Columbus hold a special dinner for Nuns’ Build volunteers and provide lunch two days during the week, Sister Dot explained. She added that the Adrian Dominican Sisters who live in community on Short Street in New Orleans also welcome all of the Dominican Sisters – not only Adrian Dominicans – to their home for prayer and an ice cream social.
If you have participated in Nuns’ Build and would like to share your experience, please click on “read more” and leave a comment.