The Humanitarian Respite Center was born as a response to families in crisis. Through its services and the work of volunteers, it successfully restores dignity to people in need, particularly immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S..

Since its setup in 2014, it had operated in the borrowed space of the Sacred Heart Church Parish Hall and currently reduced to rental space in downtown McAllen, Texas. It has served more than 100,000 immigrants to date seeking refuge. Hundreds of volunteers, from cities in the Rio Grande Valley and arriving from all 50 states have come together to offer a helping hand. Tons of goods have been donated, thanks to the contributions and solidarity of individuals and organizations alike.

McAllen is a thriving city that sits in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, which has always been a welcoming door to America. The community is made up of wonderful people; it is a mosaic of ethnicities and backgrounds, prominently of Hispanic origin. Because it’s location on the southern border with Mexico, immigration defines the Rio Grande Valley. Families have crossed the border for centuries, looking for better opportunities of life. Hard working and committed citizens have built the regions’ communities and culture as a fine knit fabric of individuals always available to collaborate.

When the humanitarian crisis arose in 2014, individuals, organizations and federal agencies offered help. The governments' agencies were overwhelmed by the large amount of immigrants seeking refuge, who were fleeing extreme violence and poverty in their homelands. What was happening?

The immigrants start their journey in Central American countries mainly from El Salvador and Honduras. Both have become unbearable places to live, especially for the poor. The immigrants leave behind violent environments only to encounter dire circumstances during their trip through Mexico. It is not bad enough to leave everything behind: existence, roots, culture, and family. Many come as unaccompanied children. The dangerous conditions encountered via La Bestia (a freight train that inadvertently transports stowaway migrants) or rides inside cargo vans on the hands of coyotes are tainted with stories of exploitation, theft, extortion and countless cases of sexual abuse.

Certain countries are granted temporary protection status in the U.S. by the Department of Homeland Security as a humanitarian response to their crushing socio-political, economic and environmental circumstances. The citizens of those countries are allowed to request asylum and refugee status. It is a long, difficult and complicated judicial process, which many of the immigrants do not anticipate when they leave their home country.

Once an immigrant arrives in U.S. territory, they are detained by CBP agents, taken to a detention center and processed. Only those that comply with certain requirements (a sponsor in the US and sufficient proof of their difficult situation back home), are liberated once their information is recorded and a GPS enabled monitor is phyiscally affixed to their ankles. The immigrant is then released at the bus station in McAllen to continue their trip headed to the towns or cities where their sponsors might live. The next step is to await a judicial hearing that may take months, sometimes a year. If the immigrant doesn’t have a lawyer, they will most likely lose their case and be deported back to their home country.

Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is humanitarian response to this crisis echoed Pope Francis message directed to the world regarding the refugees and displaced: “May we learn to love the other, the stranger, as ourselves”.

Sister Pimentel reacted quickly by setting up camp (literally) in its first location. Logistics were put in place. Prior to the establishment of the Humanitarian Respite Center, federal ICE agents were instructed to simply drop off immigrants that had been recently released from their Detention Centers, at the McAllen Bus Station. Many of the immigrants bus journeys were scheduled 24-48 hours after their release, and the bus station is not equipped to house people with no homes. There are no showers, beds, meals, or first aid available to the immigrants while they waited for their buses.

Confused and affected, the immigrants were in dire need of further help. Volunteers would pick them up from the station and take them to the Humanitarian Respite Center a few blocks away, housed temporarily at the borrowed space of the Sacred Heart Church Parish Hall. The volunteers tended to each one of the unaccompanied children, mothers, fathers, by providing the first welcoming embrace with a round of applause when they crossed the doors of the shelter. Then followed an opportunity to call home, a chance to have a shower and their first change to clean clothes in weeks, maybe months. They were given a warm meal, medical attention, a place to rest, instructions, directions and support for the challenging days ahead of them. More than anything, they heard for the first time, words of love and compassion.

Spending from a few hours to a couple of days at the Respite Center, immigrants are then taken by van to the nearby McAllen Bus Station, where they continue the trip to their final destination, in different cities along the US. The Respite Center offers the immigrants dignity and kindness during what is potentially the most difficult journey of their life. 

The effort has continued every day non-stop since Sister Norma set up her original operation. The challenge is to keep providing the much needed assistance in a permanent home. We need a place to call our own, designed as an integral building that goes beyond assisting immigrants and citizens in need. Our Humanitarian Respite Center should serve as a beacon that symbolizes hope, love, unity and compassion for generations to come.

We are proud and celebrate our immigrant heritage and compassionate culture, and wish to continue teaching and inspiring future generations to serve others less fortunate than us. Therefore, volunteering is at the core of the Humanitarian Respite Center. We dream of a place where the most vulnerable and volunteers come together for opportunities of mutual growth. A place that provides well thought of assistance and fulfills their every need. We wish to create an environment for the community to learn and honor solidarity. Let us share our vision with you, with hope that you will help us make it come to life.

In order to build the permanent Humanitarian Respite Center, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is currently presented with an opportunity to plan construction in a vacant lot measuring approximately 23,870 sq. ft. that it currently owns. The preliminary plan is to construct a one to two-story building of a maximum gross floor of 18,000 sq ft. leaving enough space for parking, and maybe room to grow.

This lot is located directly behind the Sacred Heart Church, which is in the heart of McAllen’s downtown center. During the day the surroundings are tranquil since only the church back facade sits right across the street and the busy commercial district is located towards the North-East blocks of the down town area, between 15th and 12th streets.

The Humanitarian Respite Center has the potential to also serve as a space to provide emergency assistance and disaster relief when needed. Offering an educational component should also be emphasized, for every visitor to be able to learn, understand and feel inspired on the love and compassion its walls transpire. A place to celebrate the powerful stories of countless immigrants and volunteers whose heart has been forever touched. And as one humble young man from Honduras voiced in Spanish to a volunteer: Este lugar es un bálsamo para el alma (This place is a balm to our spirit).

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