Editor's note: The people who were assisted at the border in this story are people who have immigrated or received asylum legally.
When Valerie Gordon is in Kokomo, where she lives during the summer, she tries to help people. She inherited the humanitarian gene by growing up in a house that hosted foreign exchange students. Her easiness with strangers grew during her years as a military wife, living in Panama for four years.
She has volunteered locally, taking in a couple after the 2016 tornado while they secured temporary housing. If she can lend a hand, she will.
Gordon spends the winter on her 20-acre ranch near Terlingua, Texas. Her cabin sits just miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Opinions on immigration in that area vary, but Gordon said because the issue has an overwhelming impact where she lives, she wanted to get involved.
While discussing the culture surrounding immigration, Gordon only had two stances. The first, she doesn't agree with illegal immigration, and the second, she doesn't think families should be separated. Beyond that, Gordon recognizes the validity in all stances on the subject. Politics were beside the point; she merely wanted to help those in need.
The now-closed "tent city" in Tornillo, Texas was a facility holding children ages 13-17 who were separated from their parents at the border and were held under the care of Health and Human Services. The facility had an initial capacity for 360 children, but expanded to a guarded detention camp that held more than 2,700 children, according to the Associated Press.
When the migrant holding center made headlines in fall 2018 after footage from inside its walls was released, protestors came out in droves. Celebrities brought awareness to the issue. The facility was widely criticized and called a "children's prison" on social media, according to AP.
Gordon was one of the people to protest outside the tent city in January.
"I have a tendency not to believe the news, I want to go see it in person," she said. "I want to talk to people who are there. I want to go to the so-called front lines to see what's going on and then figure out where I can help."
While she was protesting, she touched the massive fence surrounding the facility. She described that moment in one word.
"Sickening," she said. "Don't separate the children. Keep families together, even if the ultimate decision is they are sent out, send them out together. Or keep them in together. Children in prison, without their parents, doesn’t work for me. I cannot support that."
Shortly after Gordon protested Tornillo, the facility was closed down. However, Roger Maier, Customs and Border Protection spokesman, confirmed in July the facility will re-open to hold single adults who have been taken into custody. There will not be families or children held at Tornillo, he said, and it will be used to "provide relief for overcrowded Border Patrol stations."
Still standing outside Tornillo, Gordon was planning her next move. Through searching Facebook and talking to other protestors at Tornillo, Gordon scrounged up a few phone numbers and an address to the Annunciation House in El Paso.
"I plugged it into my GPS and I was like, 'Here I come," she said, with a laugh. "I'd never been to El Paso before; I've got my dog, five lanes of traffic each direction. But that's what I had decided I was doing."
Annunciation House is one of many shelters in a network that received migrants approved by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and gives them a temporary place to stay before traveling to their families, sponsors or jobs. The organization, located about 10 blocks north of the U.S. Mexico border, receives between 100 and 200 migrants daily, as of Aug. 6, according to its website.
Gordon said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had approved and dropped about 200 people off at a bus station in El Paso without any instructions on how to contact their sponsors, get bus tickets, or navigate their way through getting a sponsor. Annunciation House scheduled pick-ups from the bus station and brought them to their shelter, which was housed in a monastery school during winter break.
The shelter in El Paso was remarkably similar to the tornado shelter in Kokomo after the 2016 tornado, she said, and the system was highly organized. Upon arrival, immigrants checked in, were assigned a cot and given a hygiene kit.
"These people are exhausted from their journey, some of them have been on their feet for months," she said. "They can finally shower, get in fresh clothes. There were doctors and nurses there donating their time and expertise because many of these people were coming in ill and needing antibiotics."
The people fortunate enough to arrive at the shelter still had heavy burdens. Gordon said she met a Guatemalan woman who had traveled to the U.S. with her son. When the pair began traveling, the boy was 17, but once they arrived he was 18.
"She was taken to the shelter and he was taken to a (different) facility," she said. "The mother was just frantic trying to find out where he was, and the volunteers were working tirelessly to find him."
Volunteers' tasks ran the gamut, from reuniting families to preparing food. Gordon spent a weekend in El Paso, the first morning of which she made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a nearby location for the shelter.
The sandwiches were then packed by another group of volunteers in a bag with necessities, for people who were traveling to their sponsors. There were countless volunteers, including a Girl Scout troop that joined Gordon in sandwich-making.
Meanwhile, Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke issued a call to action for people to donate items from an Amazon wish list of necessities for the shelter. Designated shipping centers were set up throughout the city; Gordon was sent to one in an apartment complex.
The room was stacked high with boxes full of necessities from baby blankets to deodorant. Items were sorted and readied to be transported back to the shelter. The men and boy immigrants were the ones to load up boxes.
"The immigrants were working," she said. "They're not just sitting in the shelter. Once their feet hit the United States, Annunciation House had them working as well as I was. They didn't want, and weren't asking for, handouts. They were ready to work and help."
Most people in the Annunciation House were from Central America, speaking a few different languages or vastly varying dialects of Spanish, Gordon said. Groups who spoke the same language would keep their cots near each other, but language didn't matter much to the kids. Small children played in the shelter, unaffected by the communication barrier.
It reminded Gordon of when she lived in Panama with her children, who were young at the time, wanted to play with Panamanian kids, but they couldn't understand each other. Gordon brought out the crayons.
"The common language of children is crayons," she said. "Every child knows how to color. The children in the shelter did the same thing. Toys, trucks, colors and crayons are the common tongue."
It was during this moment of watching the kids talk through playtime that a little boy ran up to Gordon, but she couldn't understand what he was saying.
"I felt heartsick, all I could do was give him a hug and a smile," she said. "That's also a universal language, a smile, a hug and the one word I learned, ‘Bienvenido,' welcome."
Next time, Gordon will be prepared. She started learning Spanish in preparation for her next volunteer trip planned for September, where she'll be helping at a shelter in McAllen, Texas. This time she'll be staying for a week.
The Hoosier native doesn't want accolades or an ego boost. She said she wants to see more people taking action in their communities, benefiting populations that need it the most. Whether it be helping out local homeless, veterans or dedicating a weekend working on a Habitat for Humanity house, Gordon insists everyone take action.
"Just don't sit at home and do nothing. Choose what your passion is and go, give 24 to 48 hours. You don't have to do it all the time. I call everyone to give. If everyone got out of their houses and gave some time, the world would be better, certainly," she said.
"It just so happens that I live in Texas, it's not like I have to drive to El Paso to go help with the immigration situation. I live in Texas, I'm faced with it. I live in Kokomo, I'm faced with tornadoes. Wherever you go, help with something."