Learning across generations in El Paso

Volunteers Christa Kuck, at right, along with the author and her husband, Elissa Rothman and Nate Putnam. Putnam and Kuck are opening an Annunciation House refuge for families waiting in Juarez.

Ok Boomer vs. Gen Z. We are accustomed to seeing divisions among generations. In this corner sit older Americans, white, clueless and desperate to hang onto privilege. Over there sit the young, diverse, debt-laden and eager to topple the status quo.

During two weeks volunteering at Casa de Refugiado in El Paso, Texas, my husband and I were lucky to be led by volunteers young enough to be our grandchildren. We gave two weeks of time to mop floors, hand out clothes and do whatever else was needed. The young gave months of their lives, living in an old warehouse turned refuge and leading the work.  The guests’ needs, so vastly greater than our own, brought us together to serve and learn from each other.

First, some background: Casa de Refugiado is one of several sites run by Annunciation House, a nonprofit that has served poor immigrants in El Paso for more than four decades. Along with local volunteers, out-of-town helpers fall into three groups: Retired religious sisters, secular retirees like Steve and me and young people in their 20s, just out of college or gypsies moving among different types of social justice work. Most retirees volunteer for two weeks, while many of the young give three months, a year or more before going on to the rest of their lives.

So what do we learn from each other?

Christa Kuck, a slender, soft-spoken woman from Michigan with a seriousness beyond her 24 years, has volunteered full-time with Annunciation House since August 2018. After serving as site coordinator of a refuge in El Paso, she is helping open a small house to shelter a few of the hundreds of immigrant families forced to wait across the border in Juarez, Mexico.

Her greatest teachers at the refuge have been religious sisters in their 70s and 80s, women who’ve given decades to working with poor immigrants in the U.S. and overseas. Anti-consumer, feminist, and joyful, they model dedication and enduring faith without being didactic or judgmental.

“The sisters we work with are some of the most radical people I’ve met,” says Kuck, who describes herself as spiritual but not religious. The sisters listen but never proselytize, guide but never preach. (To learn more about rich relationships between young activists and religious sisters, see Nones & Nuns,  and work by writer Kaya Oakes.)

Their example gives Kuck, who will start medical school this fall, a vision for her own future. “It’s finding people who are in their 80s who aren’t cynical and are still passionate about making change in the world…I found a flexibility and a warmth that I haven’t found in religious and nonreligious people.”

The admiration is mutual. Sr. Sandy Wardell, a soft-spoken Ursuline sister who taught poor children in the South Bronx for 40 years, sees in the young volunteers at the refuge an echo of her younger self, when she spent summers working with the poor in West Virginia.

“For me, it’s so encouraging, so hopeful to see this generation so generous, so unafraid to face whatever experience comes their way…I see how much joy they get from what they’re doing.”

Age brings plenty of fears: Illness, senility, death and now the prospect of leaving behind a world plagued with inequality, warming temperatures and social division.  Working with young, we take hope from their strength and energy, laughter and courage.

Larry Wight, a retired high school teacher and school administrator, left four kids and five grandkids behind in Seattle in order to spend four months volunteering at the refuge. A lean, muscled man with a shock of white hair, he still hikes and runs at 77 and came to El Paso in search of service and adventure,  “not being afraid to do something that’s out of my comfort zone.”  He found something far more profound.

Larry Wight in the dining room of the refuge

Since arriving in November, he’s quietly organized mountains of donations and overseen painting and other projects to make the gloomy warehouse feel more like a home. He’s missed his family greatly.  But living and working at the refuge, working with immigrants and young volunteers, have opened his heart.

He savors lying on his bed in a dim room at the back of the warehouse, hearing younger volunteers talking and laughing in the next room but feeling no need to join them. He enjoys taking young volunteers on hikes and playing ping-pong with a 17-year-old, feeling not competition but friendship.

Most powerful have been his encounters with immigrants, who often spend weeks traveling to the border, months waiting in Juarez and days in ICE custody before arriving at the refuge. He tears up when he recalls the Brazilian father who fell into his arms, weeping with relief, gratitude and uncertainty as his family left to join family in another city.

“Whatever trauma he had experienced, whatever trauma I had experienced, in that moment we were one and the world was good.”  Wight points to his heart before continuing. “Never in my life has my heart been so open.”

It’s this part of the experience of working at the border that’s hardest to explain, that service is both hard work and a great privilege.  Making a salad, handing out toiletries and helping a mother find a warm coat doesn’t move immigration policy, but it responds to basic needs with love and welcome. More importantly, it opens the heart.

And everywhere one looks, volunteers use their skills and connections to tackle some small part of the huge problem. Midwife Kata Burke and her husband Miguel, a nurse practitioner, left their home, family and jobs in Rochester, N.Y., to manage Casa Del Refugiado for a year. While there, they are collecting 200 bottles of prenatal vitamins to give to pregnant women who pass through the refuge. Sr. Andrea Koverman, who works with poor and disabled children in Juarez, is collecting 100 books in Spanish to start a small library for children in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

One of my teachers this year was Sr. Sandy, who first volunteered at the border six years ago when she was 72 and newly retired. Two of her birth sisters had died that year, and she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. If she wanted to do other things in life, she decided, it was time to get moving. She went first to Laredo, Texas, after seeing news video showing white women screaming words of hate at a bus full of immigrant children. Since then she’s been on extended retreat in England, Bible study in Israel and run an after-school program and Sunday school in South Africa for a year.

At 78, she’s happy she can still contribute. “I can make sandwiches. I can do laundry. I can be with a mother and child who’s not feeling well.”

The refugees exemplify courage and resilience. My fellow volunteers – young and old — model what I can do, not what I can’t, and how powerful it is when we work together.

2 thoughts on “Learning across generations in El Paso

  1. Thank you for writing the article. I enjoyed it. I served our guests late September early October.
    I was an exception to your description as a parent of teenagers who went to help. With the support of my neighbors and family it was my 50th birthday present to myself to realize my privilege and get over the number 50! So guess what my forte was? Car seats! Boomers never had use them and the young inspiring girls had no experience with them either.


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