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.”