Bringing the Red Cross Home

Story by Lauren Gray McCullough, University of Arizona Nutrition Network, Tucson, AZ

I am a resident of Tucson, Arizona. The desert and the border are my community’s backyard. So, when 68,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border from October 2013 through June 2014, my community took notice. Political discussions about immigration were set aside because we had an emergency influx of children and our community had to do something.

My heart was breaking for these children, who had crossed the treacherous desert to arrive in the United States. The children that survived the journey were tired and very far from home. I was relieved when I heard that the Red Cross Restoring Family Links program was a part of the emergency response in Nogales, AZ to serve these children.

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) of Paraguay, who speaks Spanish, I was recruited by the Red Cross to serve by helping the children make phone calls home. To ensure that every child had the opportunity to make frequent phone calls, it was important to help the children dial as quickly as possible.

Volunteers with the Paraguay Red Cross

Volunteers with the Paraguay Red Cross

If anyone has ever attempted to make an international phone call, with all the symbols and long sequences of unfamiliar numbers, you know how frustrating it can be. Now, imagine you are being sheltered in a large center, with hundreds of people, in a foreign land, and you’re ten years old. How would it feel then, when all you want is to hear your mother’s voice, to let her know that you’re alive and okay.

Our interactions with the children were brief. We helped the children dial the phone numbers scribbled on little pieces of folded up paper taken from their pockets or Bibles. The moment when the line connected, when the child heard the first, “Hola,” and was connected home was priceless. The volunteers and I always said that we had the privilege of being with the children during the best part of their day. 

During this project, I could not help but think of my time in the Peace Corps. I worked with a group of passionate young people in Capiatá, Paraguay who were Red Cross volunteers. The Red Cross was a huge part of my Peace Corps service. Capiatá is a medium-sized city located about an hour east of the capital of Asuncion, and my assigned post for my two year-service as an Urban Youth Development volunteer.

Service delivery provided by the Paraguay Red Cross

Service delivery provided by the Paraguay Red Cross

In Paraguay there is a lack of youth programs – there is no funding for school team sports and many families do not have extra income for any private extra-curricular activities. And, in rural areas there are no such private options. Capiatá, however, did have a Red Cross chapter which was free to join. Together, with the Red Cross, I helped organize leadership camps, World AIDS Day campaigns, and training workshops.

In Paraguay, there is little opportunity for stable employment or higher education. The youth of the Red Cross had to learn to define themselves free of materialism or traditional outward achievements. They found meaning through their voluntary service to their community. To serve others, neutral of political debates, universally, during a time of disaster became their source of pride. They continued to learn via workshops and some youth even went on to study to become paramedics or nurses. After 11 years of advocating, the Red Cross chapter of Capiatá received their own community ambulance, a great source of pride for the community.

In Paraguay, the family bond is strong. My bond to my Paraguayan familia is also strong. I know how I feel when I call my familia, it is like I am transported back in an instant. Being able to serve the Restoring Family Links program of the Red Cross really brought my service from my Paraguayan home, to my North American home. And hopefully, I was able to give those children a small piece of that - a few minutes of being transported home, through a phone call.