In the News / December 2019

Interview with Shelter Director Elcy Valdez

Rinconcito del Sol (“a little corner of sunshine”) is USCRI’s new shelter in Florida for migrant girls who have crossed the border alone. We recently sat down with Elcy Valdez, director of the shelter, to learn more.

 

Bedrooms in the shelter are designed to be welcoming and cozy

How many girls are in the shelter now and where are they from?

There are 59 girls here now. Most of the girls are from the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—but we’ve had girls from Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador and other countries. Their ages range from 13 to almost 18.

How long do girls stay in the shelter?

The average stay is 28 days. Our number one goal is for the girls to be released to a safe home as quickly as possible—our case managers work diligently and proactively to make sure this happens. The process is quicker for girls being released to a parent or legal guardian and a little longer for those going to other relatives.

What have these girls experienced before arriving at the shelter?

They’ve had a very tough life. Many have been victims of sexual abuse, violence, or human trafficking. Often, they have left their home countries due to the lack of opportunity there. They have low levels of education because their families don’t have the resources to send them to school. Often their community is full of gang members and the girls have experienced harassment and victimization at the hands of the gang.

When they arrive in the U.S., they are detained by Border Patrol for up to 72 hours, then the Office of Refugee Resettlement takes responsibility for them and they are brought here to us.

These girls have faced many challenges, but they are so strong and resilient, especially for such a young age. They have clear goals. They want to be educated, to learn things, and to have a better life. They haven’t given up.

What is the environment like at the shelter?

Our goal is for a homelike environment. We don’t want it to feel like an institution. Often, it’s these girls’ first positive experience in the U.S. Some of them are sleeping in a bed or having three meals a day for the first time in their lives. After everything they’ve been through, they are very, very grateful to be here.

Girls participating in a dance class

What is a typical day like for a girl in the shelter?

The girls go to school in the morning. In the afternoon, they might go to tutoring, group therapy, or group activities like Zumba or arts and crafts. They meet weekly for one-on-one counseling sessions with a clinician, receive Know Your Rights presentations from attorneys provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and talk to their families by phone, and in some cases, visit with them in person at the shelter. The girls work regularly with a case manager whose priority is to safely unite them with their families as quickly as possible. We have movie and game nights. For those who are interested, there’s a sewing workshop and there are swimming lessons twice a week.

What surprised you the most when the shelter first opened?

The support from the community was an amazing surprise. We were afraid of pushback and it was the total opposite. Churches, Girl Scouts, the mayor, the Jewish association, other nonprofits—everyone has come together to accept and welcome these girls. The community has embraced them completely.

Tell me about a couple of the girls who came through the shelter.

Luisa* was abandoned by her parents in Guatemala. Her grandfather was raising her, but he died and she was left totally alone. She made her way to the U.S. but had no relatives or friends here—no one who could serve as her sponsor—and she was too old for long-term foster care. She was just stuck, with nowhere to go and no one to take care of her. We realized she might qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status, a visa specifically for minors who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent. Our legal team is helping her with this right now. Legal assistance is one of the most important things we can provide these kids.

Another girl, Julia,* was a victim of human trafficking, but since she was a few months away from her 18th birthday, she also was not eligible for foster care services and benefits. As soon as she turned 18, she was going to be picked up by Homeland Security and possibly deported. She was vulnerable and alone with a very uncertain future. After a lot of hard work and research, we were able to place her in a program in Texas that helps trafficking victims through age 21. A staff member traveled with her to Texas, to ensure that Julia will be safe and can focus on recovering from trauma and creating a new life.

Lunchtime at the shelter

How is Rinconcito del Sol serving as a model for other shelters around the country?

USCRI has started an affinity group for shelter care providers from around the country to share best practices and provide guidance and advice to each other. We also issued a paper in October 2019 with recommendations that we believe will lead to quality care and services that are in the children’s best interests. Our policies on the prevention of sexual abuse and harassment have been shared with other shelters as an example of effective policies. We will continue to develop expertise in areas that specifically affect teenage girls. We will also continue to build on USCRI’s own experience in other programs that provide assistance to unaccompanied immigrant children; these include programs providing home studies, follow-up care and services, special assistance for girls who have been trafficked, and immigration legal services.

How can people help? Do you need donations for the shelter?

Our most immediate need is cash donations to cover legal services. It is impossible for these kids to navigate the U.S. immigration legal system on their own. A donation of $100 covers a child’s initial consultation with a lawyer. A gift of $500 would cover an application for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for a child who has been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent. A gift of $3,000-$5,000 would cover the asylum application process for a child who has come to the U.S. on their own.

In terms of items, the girls’ basic needs are covered, but we welcome donations of “extras” to help make life in the shelter a little brighter. We gratefully accept donations of new items like games, books,  makeup, and nail polish.

To Donate:

Donate online here. Checks (payable to USCRI) may be mailed to USCRI, Development Dept, 2231 Crystal Drive, Ste 350, Arlington, VA 22202. (Memo: child migrants)

Items for the shelter may be dropped off or mailed to USCRI c/o Youth Co-Op, 2112 N. Congress Ave. #102, West Palm Beach, FL 33406.

Questions? Please contact donations@uscridc.org.

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