A Debrief from Lucia Panichella, Director of Youth and Immigrant Services, JFS of Metrowest

Photos: Craig Byer, CJP

Earlier this month, I was privileged to be a part of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP’s) Women in Philanthropy Mission to San Diego.  I was joined by CJP staff, a colleague from JCRC and about 20 women from our community who wanted to bear witness to the humanitarian crisis at our border and support the work that is happening to welcome and care for these families. When JFS COO, Lino, asked if I wanted to go I knew I had to be there, but I really didn’t know what awaited me.

We arrived Thursday afternoon and after a stop at the hotel, we got right to work. On the first day I helped lead a group sorting clothes and other donations while others painted and served food.  The shelter is housed in an old courthouse that is slated for demolition at the end of the year.  The electricity was out in the half of the building so we worked with no lights or AC. 

The next day we spent time learning from experts from JFS San Diego, ACLU and The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights about the ever changing landscape of the laws and policies affecting the border and the people there to give context for our work before returning to the shelter.  My task that afternoon was to clean the cots.  I knew – I know – how important the cleaning and the sorting is.  Especially to a place like that – where it’s all hands on deck, doing whatever it takes to change people’s lives.  But, it was the last day that I will take with me always.  While some women painted, a six year-old boy went over to help.  They turned to me because the volunteer was trying to tell him to take his jacket off so he didn’t get it dirty and he didn’t understand.  With my rusty Spanish, I translated and instantly made a new friend. 

At home I would have worried that my son would make too much of a mess of the painting to just enjoy watching him beam with pride as he moved the paint brush up and down.  However, in that space there was no room for worrying about little things like that.  This boy was healthy and smiling and adding his stamp to this space that welcomed him in and wrapped him with safety and love.  His older brother told me they left Honduras 3 years ago and would soon, hopefully, make their way to family in Georgia. 

And then there was S.  A three year old I first met while she was watching Despicable Me – my son’s favorite.  After only a few words and high fives she jumped right into my arms to dance and play for the rest of the afternoon.  Sharing her love through laughs.  I hated to say goodbye.  There’s comfort in knowing that she has a place to go to, parents who love her, and a charisma that will take her far.  But what awaits her?  Maybe she will settle in to a community like Framingham and find a school like Woodrow Wilson where community will dance and laugh with her and hold her hand.  I will see her in the faces of the Wilson students. 

I also saw the faces of our refugees.  Meeting these families and children reminded me of meeting our refugee families when they first arrive at the airport.  Their journey was different but their story is the same.  The parents were tired, wary and sad but also relieved and hopeful.  Their love for their children was almost tangible.  Their children were the fuel keeping them going, the only thing that on occasion let their guard down and smile for a moment.  These precious children, wanting only to play and laugh.  We can learn a lot from these children.  They know how to genuinely love and connect with strangers.  They deserve for the world to greet them with the same.

I am so honored to be a part of this group of people who said that showing these children and families that we care is important enough to travel across the country for.  As they continue on their journey they probably won’t remember us but I hope that that message of caring will forever be a part of their hearts.

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San Diego, CA, US

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