I have always firmly believed that as humans, we are called to serve others, whether you have a little or you have a lot… use what you have got, when you have it, for those who need it. When I think of Child Life Disaster Relief (CLDR) and Children’s Disaster Services (CDS) that is really what we are doing. Feeling a call to act and accepting that call for the betterment of children and families impacted by natural disaster, deliberate violence, or in this case, humanitarian aide. However, this one just felt a little different. This one came with some baggage. This one had so many strings attached to different narratives being shared by our government officials, our media outlets, and anyone else whom felt it important to share an opinion. This one came with bias and convictions. For the last 2.5 years the topic of immigration has flooded our news and for the 2.5 weeks prior to deployment, the details of the current policies of deportation and detainment at the border have consumed our nation.

McAllen, Texas was my first deployment, although it felt years in the making; years of working with refugees locally in the Tampa Bay area, years of spending summers in Central and South America with different philanthropies serving the underprivileged youth, and my years of practice in child life, all leading to this moment. In the first week of August, Kelly Boyd, CCLS, and myself were finally able to put our CLDR training and CDS certification into action.

Given that we were the first child life specialists to arrive, and only entering the 6th day of CDS support in McAllen, we were unsure of what to expect once we landed in Texas; unsure of whom exactly we would be working with, where this would be, and how we would go about doing it, but nonetheless, eager to be there. We met John, our leader, at the airport, and went directly to the Catholic Charities Respite Center that we would be serving. En route we learned that this is a center is an organization that provides support to immigrant families whom have been approved to seek asylum in the United States following detainment and investigation at the US Border facility. They are provided with food, water, new clothing, a shower, a backpack with hygiene products, and their bus tickets and itinerary for the rest of their journey to the city that they are able to seek asylum. Sounds simple enough right? Learning of the outreach and witnessing it in action are two far different things. What I actually witnessed were up to 130 people each day getting off of buses, dirt staining their clothing and skin, hair in knots, and little to no personal belongings beyond the clothes on their backs, the infants in their arms, and their new ankle bracelets that would be monitoring their movement in the United States until their asylum has been approved. Otherwise, it would be removed following their deportation back to their home country. This is where we come in. Like a well-oiled machine, the children are first given a meal and a bath and then they make their way to our play space, no larger than a 10×15 area, we learned by experience that this space was equipped to facilitate the play of up to 65 children at a time.

As the days past, Kelly and I grew more confident in the system in place, the population we were working with, and began to let our creativity spark. We began to lead daily outdoor activities. In 104 degree heat we were hosting soccer matches and penalty shoot outs in the “parking lot” with the asphalt melting under our feet and sticking to our shoes. These games meant so much more to me than play because through them I began to witness the true power of play and passion behind this sport, not only for the children, but for adults too. Mothers, father, boys and girls of all ages would join us laughing and cheering. Before my eyes, the stresses of their journey and the lingering weight of their upcoming court date melted away while that played “the beautiful game”. These feelings may have been brief and fleeting, but what an honor it was it witness play transcending age, nationality, and doing so in such times of desperation.

However, personally, I felt that it was when my confidence grew in my Spanish speaking that my interactions really began to flourish. With the support of Google Translate and the Spanish I had in my own toolkit, doors were finally opening for therapeutic dialogue. It was through these conversations they were able to share more about the struggles they faced back home that led to such strong feelings of desperation to flea. I learned about the loved ones left behind and the grief now carried by the children in their absence. I learned of the dangers of their travels, risks of being robbed, raped, and the inhumane circumstances of travel, like long distances walking in the heat and masses of humans transported by tractor-trailer. While on the outside, I tried to remain calm, strong, and compassionate; however, my insides were turning from their stories. Not only by the details, but also by how “matter of fact” they shared them, as if it was their normal. When asked about their detainment at the border, many glazed over the details of their separation from their parents, and would return the conversation to their family left behind, the distance and time it took to travel to the United States, and ask questions about where they were going and what lied ahead.

A challenge that we faced was seeing such a great need for child life intervention, but only given such a short period of time to offer support in coping as the children were only at the site for 18-36 hours. One thing I found to be most rewarding was finding ways to equip the school age children and teens to be as successful as possible once they leave the respite center and journey forward. To do this, I hosted daily ESL sessions. These adapted over time, but by the end of the week, these consisted of providing each child with a note book, pencil, and going over words, numbers, statements, and questions that may be valuable to them or their caregivers in the upcoming days. I often found parents listening in and trying to learn, but keeping a humble distance.

I can honestly say, it was emotionally draining, physically exhausting, but holistically uplifting being a part of this deployment. To just be in the presence of such brave children who remain so joyful in such challenging circumstances is humbling and inspiring all in the same. I hope that CDS and CLDR can continue to provide support to these families as this issue is not going to be resolved in the near future, but we, as humans called to serve, can act immediately.

-Catherine “Kat” Leibbrandt, B.A. B.S. CCLS

See more about Kat & Kelly’s deployment from Tampa local news WTSP

and Johns Hopkins ALL Children’s Hospital:

https://www.hopkinsallchildrens.org/ACH-News/General-News/At-the-Border,-Therapeutic-Play-Opens-the-Door