The Story of the Beginning

I feel dizzy as I put down the phone. I have just received word that my adolescent client, an unaccompanied minor from Honduras, has run away from her sponsor family’s home and cannot be located. As I move quickly to report the emergency, the reality that I have been avoiding finally sinks in: the documents that I’m required to file about my clients’ lives are so time-consuming that they actually prevent me from providing essential emotional support to my clients. It is a systemic issue, as the high number of clients we are given leads to a high number of reports due weekly, infringing on time available to be truly present and helpful for the clients. The situation at hand is tragic and could have been averted. On this day in January of last year, as I sit at my desk feeling helpless about the dynamics of my profession, I commit to providing an alternative way to more thoroughly support my clients.

 

I believe there is a way to be present for our clients and file the necessary paperwork. I believe that we can create a system where every suffering child can be heard, supported, and provided an opportunity to thrive.

My idea to start a nonprofit assisting child refugees and immigrants sprouted in the summer of 2014. That year had seen unaccompanied minors, children who had crossed the U.S. border without a parent or guardian, enter the country at three times the rate of the year prior.

The scale of the problem is massive—more than 110,000 unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children have crossed the border since 2014. This significant increase from previous years is largely due to uncontrollable gang violence in the region. Children are forced to flee and must then face the perilous journey through Central America. By the time they arrive in New York they have undoubtedly experienced traumatic events.

As this humanitarian crisis has unfolded, service providers have rushed to meet the needs of displaced youth. I joined this rush initially as a volunteer for a legal organization serving unaccompanied minors, and continued my efforts for the next two years as a licensed social worker.

I have met many strong young people who have accomplished incredible feats. Children have told me about how they walked days through the jungle alone, sleeping in bushes at night and hiding to avoid getting caught. One young woman who was pregnant while she traveled to the U.S. described eating only crackers for days during her journey. A boy client described how he was separated from his grandmother after being detained and was kept alone in a very cold room for two days.

While working in social services with unaccompanied minors I have observed a few trends. The mental health and developmental needs of clients are not being addressed with enough urgency. Not enough organizations can afford to focus on these needs, and those that try are often overwhelmed and have long waitlists.

Caseworkers are overloaded and frequently do not receive the support they need to protect themselves against secondary trauma. (Secondary trauma is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the firsthand traumatic experiences of another.) It is natural that the stress builds inside caseworkers after hearing about the private lives of children who have experienced such traumatic journeys and abuse. For this type of social work to be sustainable, the employer must foster an environment where caseworkers can process what they have heard and seen. Stressed social workers cannot effectively support their clients.

 

As I meet child after child struggling to adjust, I am inspired with an urgency. There are thousands of young people who need this kind of help. I have met them, seen their homes, and listened to their stories of terrifying journeys and struggles. Furthermore, we know how to help them in New York. I want to create a healthy and innovative workspace that allows us to support our clients effectively.

Momentum is building and I am thrilled to report that my plans have attracted enthusiastic people who want to help and be involved. I have an amazing team working with me to design youth-oriented classes geared to encourage growth and hopefulness, to create a referral system for legal and educational services, and to foster a work environment that is sensitive to staff’s needs. I have founded a nonprofit organization that aligns my goals of supporting unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children with a client-centered approach.

 

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