The Resilience of Youth

Story by Jonathan Custer, National Headquarters, RFL Training Associate

There are two things you should know about me: First, I crave the heat. Summers in Washington, DC don’t faze me at all. The hotter it is, the happier I am. Second, I love seeing new places. Ever since living in Venezuela back in the 1990s, I’ve had the itch to see as much of the world as possible. So when the opportunity arose for me to go to Nogales, AZ, I was excited to take it. I had never been to the southwestern United States and what better place to feel the heat than Arizona in July?

But mixed with this excitement was a tad bit of fear and a lot of uncertainty. My reason for going to Nogales was to support a program of the American Red Cross that provided phone calls for unaccompanied children along the border.

I had seen the news reports and heard about how things were in that particular facility from other colleagues who had gone down before me.  I wasn’t sure how I would react to seeing first-hand the situation in which these kids found themselves. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to lend a hand.

And so I went.

The first day was rather overwhelming. Well over 500 kids were being held in chain-link holding cells, all wearing the same plain white tees and blue gym shorts, and waiting for something to do. Anything. I was told what to expect, but it was still sad to see.

They were brought in groups of about 32 and given a short amount of time to call relatives back in their country of origin and inside the United States. Many times, the smiles and exuberant energy the kids had upon sitting in front of the phone quickly turned to sobs and tears as they heard the voices of loved ones. Still, a few of the kids confided in me that it was, by far, their favorite part of the day. By the second and third day, I got a few waves from boys and girls that recognized me from the day(s) before. Even though our contact was limited, a small connection was already made.

At the end of each day, I took some time to think about what these kids must have been through. Not only since arriving in the US, but their entire journey to get here as well. I couldn’t imagine it. I was struck by the resilience these young people (some as young as five years old) exhibited. They have gone through a lot and still smile, have a sense of humor, and keep their heads up. At the age of 33, I’m not even sure I have the strength to go through what they’ve endured.

In the grand scheme of things, the assistance I helped provide may seem small. However, the appreciation these kids showed was amazing. So grateful. So polite. On second thought, maybe a phone call isn’t so small. To these kids and their families, it was huge.

I got to see a new place and I got more than enough heat (it’s confirmed that southern Arizona is hot). More importantly, though, was that I was able to hand a phone to a kid and let them have the best part of their day.