Immigration relief efforts in McAllen receives support from local volunteers

Randy O'Dell is coordinator of the Salvation Army's  Williamson County canteen. Liberty Hill area volunteers assisted in the immigration relief efforts in McAllen this month. (Courtesy Photo)

Randy O’Dell is coordinator of the Salvation Army’s Williamson County canteen. Liberty Hill area volunteers assisted in the immigration relief efforts in McAllen this month. (Courtesy Photo)

By SHELLY WILKISON

Liberty Hill area volunteers opened their hearts in recent days to hundreds of Central American immigrants making their way through McAllen to destinations north.

As part of the Salvation Army’s Williamson County canteen, nine area volunteers travelled to McAllen’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church and became part of a humanitarian effort to help those fleeing violence and starvation south of the Mexican border.

“When they’re coming from villages where people are starving to death, it’s easy to be sympathetic,” said Randy O’Dell, a Liberty Hill realtor and coordinator for the Salvation Army’s Disaster Services in Williamson County. O’Dell is in his third year managing a portable kitchen, or canteen, that is deployed to disaster scenes throughout Central Texas and beyond. “They’re coming out of desperate situations.”

The Liberty Hill canteen was called on to relieve McAllen Salvation Army volunteers on June 30. O’Dell said he was briefed about the situation and had followed news reports of the immigration issue, but was taken aback by the magnitude of the problem in the Rio Grande Valley. Although he and the other Liberty Hill area volunteers were the only ones at the relief center who did not speak Spanish, it became immediately clear that their purpose there was simply to provide some nourishment for the weary.

Since October, officials estimate some 57,000 unaccompanied youths have arrived in the United States from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. While O’Dell said the Sacred Heart church was not a relief center for those unaccompanied children, most adults were traveling with at least one child.

“As a mother and a grandmother, it was devastating to me to see families come through there,” said Karen Spivey of Liberty Hill. “If you take the politics out of it…here in America, we are spoiled.”

Mrs. Spivey and her husband, Gary, along with O’Dell and his wife, Sharon, were accompanied by Bruce Peterson, Cindy Wells, Greg and Kathy Garnett, all of Liberty Hill, and Herman Knodel of Georgetown. It was Mrs. Spivey’s first relief deployment since she and her husband volunteered with the Salvation Army in recent months and went through training.

Those immigrants, who were taken by authorities to the Sacred Heart church, had bus fare to other cities where sponsors were supposedly awaiting their arrival. Once they arrive in their destination city, the sponsor is responsible for getting them to an immigration court for further processing.

“We heard stories of many paying $7,000 or more to coyotes to bring them across (the border), ladies being raped. Some would get over here with a phone number, then phones would be disconnected,” O’Dell said.

In cases where a connecting sponsor could not be confirmed, immigration authorities would send those age 18 and older back across the border, he said.

In McAllen, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which is just three blocks from the bus station, has become an oasis. For several weeks, the church has offered its facilities as a relief center for those awaiting bus travel. In some cases, families found themselves waiting as long as 72 hours in the bus station without food, a change of clothes or medical attention.

In response, air conditioned tents were set up in the church parking lot, and donations of clothing, food and toiletries poured in from McAllen residents and businesses. Cots were set up inside and medical attention and social services were also provided.

“They (the church) started giving them clothes, a shower and one big meal,” said O’Dell. “But, they were serving heavy food like chicken, meatloaf, tacos. They were getting sick from that because they were dehydrated for so long. They couldn’t handle that food.”

O’Dell said Salvation Army doctors determined that a hearty soup with plenty of liquids was the nourishment that was needed. So the Liberty Hill volunteers got up every morning and prepared more than 10 gallons of chicken soup with vegetables.

As they arrived at the church, each person was served soup and Pedialyte. Accompanied by a Spanish-speaking volunteer sponsor, each person was then allowed to shower and given a fresh set of clothes. The Williamson County group then prepared sandwiches and packed granola bars that were given to them for the bus trip.

O’Dell said in the eight days his group was there, they served 1,000 meals that included 600 fruit cups, 1,200 drinks, 200 sandwiches for the road and logged 1,100 volunteer hours. Meals were served continuously from 12:30-8:30 p.m. daily.

“It wasn’t a disaster scenario, but it was a disaster,” said O’Dell, referring to the disaster response training Salvation Army volunteers receive through the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). He said the hastily-organized relief center at Sacred Heart didn’t follow all of the typical protocols put in place by the Salvation Army, but the huge number of immigrants placed an urgent demand on resources. Rather than utilize the Liberty Hill portable kitchen, O’Dell said food preparation was done in the church’s kitchen.

Mrs. Spivey said the need was so great that sometimes it was difficult to “just serve the soup,” which was the job of the Liberty Hill volunteers.

“How anyone cannot have compassion for these people, I don’t know,” she said. “But our job was to serve the soup.”

Mrs. Spivey said in spite of a language barrier, many mothers reached out to her with hugs and kissed her on the cheek in appreciation.

“My heart just went out to them. It was devastating. It made me cry to see them, and some mothers were crying so hard with relief to be in a safe place,” she said.

Mrs. Spivey said the experience was eye-opening and made her appreciate life in Liberty Hill.

“Here (in the United States), we tend to grow up thinking ‘it’s all about me’, when instead we should be asking ‘what can I do to help you?’,” she said. “God puts people in our path and watches what we do with them. I want to help where I can, and if it’s the shirt off my back that you need, then that’s okay.”

The Salvation Army is funded primarily by donations. To help the charitable organization’s immigration relief efforts in the Rio Grande Valley, send a contribution and be specific about its intended use. To learn more about making a donation, go to www.salvationarmyaustin.org. To learn more about the Liberty Hill Canteen, contact O’Dell by email at RandyDODell@cs.com.