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Volunteers help bring normalcy to unaccompanied children in federal custody

For some volunteers helping children cope with detention in a foreign country, without their parents, the advocacy is personal.

HARLINGEN, Texas — We all need a safe space to share our heart, Luis Acosta is learning how to share his, partially through volunteer work with migrant children in federal custody.

“I do it as a way to give back to people of my descent, or people that I know are from my country.”  Acosta said. “I feel like that's a big thing of me. I am proud to be Mexican. I never hide it.”

“It's just, ‘How are you? What activities do you want to do today? Do you want to talk about anything in particular?’” Acosta described. “Just a friendly interaction that you just talked to like anyone.”

Acosta volunteers for The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in Harlingen. The center has offices in many major U.S. cities, including San Antonio, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix, Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles. 

According to the nonprofit’s website, “Young Center attorneys, social workers and volunteers are appointed as Child Advocates by the Department of Health and Human Services” for children who came to the U.S. without their parents. These minors are most often referred to as “unaccompanied.”

Acosta, a biochemistry and molecular biology grad student in the Rio Grande Valley, came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child.

“This hits a little close to home, that’s why I decided to volunteer with them (The Young Center),” he told KENS 5.

He said he wants to give something to the migrant kids he’s talking to, something he didn’t have as a child: a role model.

“To actually say, ‘Hey, this is how you get to college, this is what you do, these are your prerequisites, the little basic things that you will need,’” he said.  “I know what it's like to have to leave your country and come into a different language, different culture, just something different. I know it's scary, because I know my sister and I, we didn't feel comfortable. And there was a lot of discrimination when we first got here. It's very difficult and I want to share my experience with them and say, ‘Hey, it's OK.’”

Volunteers like Acosta and social workers at the Young Center also provide a safe place for the detained children to share their experiences, their heart.

“We are supporting children's mental health; we're supporting children's wellbeing and making sure that their voices (are) elevated,” said Tania Torres, managing social worker at the Young Center’s Harlingen office.  “I am here to make sure that I listen to you. And that we figure out together how we can move forward, how we can support you in moving forward in your life. And so yes, I believe that we are one of the of the connections that these children have to just being human and feeling human.”

Torres told KENS 5 children of all ages are referred to the Young Center by the shelters where they are in federal custody.

“A lot of the children that we end up working with are referred by different shelters that are under the Office of Refugee Resettlement and they are our primary source of referrals,” Torres said.

Torres told KENS 5 the children come from different countries, but primarily Central American nations.

“These children come with different needs, depending on where they've been, and the people who have been involved in their life and we try to make sure that we're doing our part to meet those needs in the best way that we can whenever possible,” Torres said.

The idea is to connect the kids with someone who speaks their language and understands their journey, as well as the history of their country.

“They have the same needs that any child in the world would have, for example, they need safety, they need to be with somebody who cares for them or loves them,” said Torres.

“We're providing kids a space for storytelling, for their story to be validated. For their story to be honored, in a way where judgment is not part of the space,” Torres said. “That is what I feel personally is my biggest role as a social worker. I am listening to somebody’s story and listening to it with my whole heart.”

Twenty-three-year-old Acosta said he plans to continue volunteering. Because of COVID, he’s been able to do so by talking to the kids assigned to him by remote means.“Before going into the Young Center and volunteering, I was like, ‘Oh, well, I'll just talk to kids that know Spanish,’ you know, I'll comfort them with any problems that they have,” Acosta said. “But there's things that they do allow me to listen to while I'm volunteering. I see them as sort of role models, because they've gone through so much. And I know they're still wanting to achieve a lot more in life.”

The Young Center welcomes volunteers. You can find out more by clicking here.