Now that I’ve been home from McAllen for a few days, I’ve been spending a little bit of time reflecting on the experience and thinking about how I would describe it to someone else:
Volunteering at the border was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. Our team worked 14-16 hours per day, often in 100+ degree heat. On the second night I had trouble falling asleep because my legs hurt so much (this is coming from someone who’s run more than 80 marathons and half marathons – if I say my legs hurt, they really hurt). Each night we would sleep for a handful of hours, get up, have breakfast together as a team and then go do it all over again.
Working at the Respite Center also involves interacting with hundreds of people in close quarters. A lot of them are sick. All you can do to keep from getting sick yourself is to wash your hands and use hand sanitizer as often as possible and hope for the best. I came home with a pretty bad case of the flu but it wasn’t anything we weren’t warned about before the trip and it started to clear up within a few days.
The emotional impact was a lot tougher to deal with than the physical impact though. And, to some extent, I think my brain is still processing all of the different contradictions I’ve been feeling since I left:
- I feel happy for having had such a positive impact, but also sad knowing what the families we helped have been through and how far they all still have to go.
- I feel more educated because I had a chance to experience what’s going on at the border firsthand and get a good explanation of our legal policies directly from an immigration lawyer, but at the same time I feel angry now that I have a better understanding of all the roadblocks that are in place even for people who are trying to come here legally.
- I feel happy to be home but at the same time I feel guilty for leaving knowing that there’s still so much work that needs to be done there.
- And I feel helpless knowing that there will always be a lot of work to do there until our laws change and the only thing I can do about that is vote and hope that our elected officials will make solving these issues a priority.
I’m also always going to wonder what ultimately became of the people who I met that took the time to share their stories with me:
- The man who shook my hand and thanked me repeatedly for helping him and his daughter find clothes on my first day.
- The man with the sick daughter who I sat down with and spoke to at the end of the night when we served dinner.
- The little girl who colored the picture for me.
- The teenager who helped me sort items at the healthcare counter.
- The lady who gave away all her things when she crossed the border, only to find out she was being sent back to Mexico to wait longer.
- And a number of other people who I met and talked to for a few minutes here and there throughout the trip. There were at least a dozen more.
So would I go back and do it again? Absolutely. Despite how challenging (and at times overwhelming) it was and as hard as it is to know that it will always be impossible to help everyone, I know that the work my teammates and I did while we were there helped to make a dent (however small it may have been) and that we were able to touch the lives of some people and help them through part of one of the roughest journeys of their lives. And that, to me, made everything worth it.