“Would you like cocoa or coffee?” I asked. “Coffee, please,” replied a young Latina woman cradling a baby in one arm and holding the hand of her little boy. “How about cocoa for him?” I asked, referring to her son. “Sure,” she replied. It made me happy to serve them.
Once a month, volunteers from our church, Fox Island United Church of Christ, gather up supplies, including sandwiches, fruit, snacks, cookies, beverages, toys and books to offer family members who are visiting relatives detained at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
The center is located in the desolate reaches of the Tacoma tide flats, on a side street off of Portland Avenue. It stands amidst warehouses, abandoned strips of property with trash trapped against wire fences, and a parked sentry of semitrucks. It’s hard to believe that there are 1,500-plus human beings existing here, inside the long, low building.
On a grassy patch outside the center, we set up a large canopy and tables, where we display our goodies. We make sure visitors know to come by after their visit and take advantage of our free offerings for the drive back home. In December, we gave out stuffed Christmas stockings. By the end of the day, they had all been handed to little ones, who clutched them happily as they walked with their caretakers to parked cars. We have been doing this for nearly two years.
In February, all of us volunteers, who were gathered outside the center on a blustery Sunday, had to brace ourselves against the wind. It was as if larger forces were trying to deter us from our mission. But we were not dissuaded. Even when the poles of our canopy were yanked from the ground by wind gusts trying to rip our shelter away, we held on.
We won’t give up on providing comfort, a much-needed commodity for families who have often traveled many miles in order to visit a detainee. I feel a deep sadness about the predicaments of the detainees and their families. In fact, for some time I didn’t volunteer because I didn’t think I could bear to see the pain that visitors were going through. Yet, I’ve discovered a real sense of peace in reaching out to these vulnerable folks and their youngsters. To see the surprise, then gratitude in their eyes, is truly rewarding. There are often tears, as they describe how long their husband, uncle, mother, aunt, brother or sister has been detained, and the expected outcome of their detention. We listen, we empathize, we hug when hugs are needed.
These visitors are resilient and we’ve been especially touched by their desire to reciprocate. Several have offered cash donations, and recently a visitor asked if he could help with our mission. Imagine. He wants to help in spite of what he is going through!
Sometimes there are other groups who set up tables and canopies on the grass near us. They are political groups who oppose the very existence of the detention center. They abhor the policies of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and The GEO Group, the for-profit that runs the center. They come from across the Pacific Northwest to protest, talk with visitors and pass out literature. We often chat with these people, exchange ideas and offer food, if we have enough. They always give us an enthusiastic thumbs-up for providing solace to families.
During this debate in our country about who does and doesn’t belong, our church group and the other groups have a part to play. We are promoting qualities much needed in America — compassion and justice.
Reach Mary Magee at firstname.lastname@example.org.