Lembo is CEO of SBCS and lives in Point Loma. Cuestas is CEO of Casa Familiar and lives in Chula Vista. Islas is executive vice president and chief impact officer of MAAC and lives in Otay Mesa.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring people together. Whether it was the nation uniting after 9/11 or the brave frontline responders working around the clock to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 patients, these are catalytic moments in history that test our collective mettle. In March, we were presented the opportunity for such a moment with the creation of the emergency intake shelter in the San Diego Convention Center.
When San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and county Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Nora Vargas announced in March that the convention center would, within a matter of days, temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children, the leaders turned to San Diego’s community of service providers to care for them. Minutes after that press conference, our phones began ringing with personal entreaties from the mayor and supervisors asking us to dig deep into our decades of experience and run the center’s social service operations.
Without hesitation and within hours, SBCS (formerly known as South Bay Community Services), Casa Familiar, the YMCA, New Alternatives, MAAC, San Diego Youth Services, the San Diego County Office of Education and the Logan Heights Community Development Corp. were all on board. Our agencies work with children every day. We knew what it would take to create nurturing environments. We knew how to help those who have experienced neglect, abuse or another form of trauma. We knew the importance of providing holistic care. And we knew this would be different.
Many of the children in the shelter made the daunting journey here from as far away as Guatemala and Honduras, and their physical and emotional needs were significant. Caring for children, regardless of immigration status, knows no boundaries. We understood that to provide the environment and services they deserved, it would take our agencies’ collective know-how and commitment.
To get started, we drew upon our decades of experience. Harnessing each organization’s strengths, we could collectively develop the playbook for how this shelter should operate. But operating a shelter was not enough. Our aim was to create a safe and loving environment, one that not only fostered physical and mental health, but also provided a sense of security, hope and joy for the children we served. Fortunately, as organizations that work day in and day out to help children thrive, we all had the expertise commitment to excellence
And we knew we could do it. Drawing on each organization’s areas of expertise, we quickly developed a plan for how we would.
The sheer logistics were daunting. This commitment required us to find qualified staff to care for 1,450 children every minute of the day. We also needed to clothe them, feed them, fill their days with educational and enriching activities, provide guidance on the legal aspects of their journey, give the emotional nourishment they would need and help them locate family members in our country who could provide a loving home for them. We constantly asked ourselves, to what extent would their arduous odyssey impact their psyche and emotional well-being? What else could we provide? And would the community support us?
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These and other challenges too numerous to mention were swiftly and succinctly put to rest. The way San Diegans stepped up and supported our efforts at the shelter exceeded our wildest dreams. Our bilingual staffs, trained in trauma-informed care, worked 24/7 to ensure that every child’s needs were met and each one one of them was cared for as if they were our own. It is because of our many incredible staff members and volunteers that just a few short months later, we are celebrating the fact that over 2,400 unaccompanied minors have been reunited with family here in the U.S., and an additional 800 have been placed with supportive sponsor families.
As we close the doors to the shelter, our eyes are open to the renewed power of collaboration. The shared experience between all the partners has painted a bright future not only for the children we cared for, but for the work we will continue to do with each other. We are grateful that our bonds have been strengthened and our hearts have been opened wide. Together, we have a renewed focus on helping our region’s communities become even more resilient as we prepare for the next challenge that comes our way.
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