Mad River Union
ARCATA – Maureen McGarry, an Arcata artist and art educator, went to the Lights for Liberty vigil for refugees in July.
She came home “frustrated.”
“I wanted to do something,” she said.
What she did do was to search the Internet, finding a nonprofit organization in San Diego called Border Angels.
This group of volunteers is best known for their work of carrying water bottles into the desert for thirsty immigrants to find.
But they do much more, including free immigration counseling, education and advocacy, day laborer outreach, and border rescue stations.
McGarry read the group’s online newsletter and decided to participate in their Caravan of Love, a regular, twice-monthly event of volunteers carpooling to deliver necessities, supplies, and moral support to migrants in Tijuana shelters.
“I can’t carry water,” she said. “I could cook or do crafts with the kids. I took the chance of calling.”
She and fellow teacher Cindy Kuttner, who have known each other “since the early ’70s,” planned to drive two vehicles loaded with diapers, art supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, water bottles, books, and toys to join in the caravan on July 27. Word got passed around the county quickly, as it often does, and the donations poured in to an overflowing table in Arcata City Hall. SCRAP Humboldt gave lots of art supplies as well. Generous donors also gave cash.
The two women left Arcata on July 25, picked up McGarry’s brother Jim in the Bay Area as the third driver, and planned to be back on July 30.
It was a whirlwind trip with unexpected consequences. It was also a journey that left McGarry wanting to do it again.
The group arrived at a shelter for women and children from Central America, a metal building with a kitchen area, an eating area with tables, and a section filled with row after row of tents, each one home to a family.
“It was really hot inside,” McGarry said.
McGarry asked the person in charge if she could do some art projects with the children. “The woman spoke in rapid Spanish and soon all the seats at the tables were filled with around 40 children, yelling and pounding on the tables.”
“I asked my brother to get out all the art supplies as fast as he could. Of course they had been packed at the very front of the truck.”
McGarry explained that since the children were Central American and lacked Mexican citizenship, leaving the building could expose them to danger. “They have no country,” she said.
Their pent-up energies of not being allowed outside to play erupted at the prospect of fun.
Once the supplies were handed around, they quieted down and painted or drew on the boards McGarry had prepared ahead of time, by taping watercolor paper to pieces of cardboard.
“We were short of brushes,” she said, “but we had markers and crayons. I want to go back with lots more brushes.”
“The best moment was when we were standing in the middle of this room with everybody occupied, even the volunteers who had driven down. It gave every one something to do. It was an art event,” she said.
Later, McGarry wanted to take a photograph of a poignant sight but did not.
“All the moms were lined up on folding chairs. The look on their faces was one of hopelessness. I wanted to take a picture but I didn’t. I wanted to preserve their dignity.” she said. “I’ll never forget seeing them.”
McGarry knew her situation was different. “We’re just a bunch of gringos who went down for the day. We got to go back to San Diego and sleep in a hotel room and take showers.”
The three volunteers delivered supplies with the caravan to two other shelters. One was in a woman’s home, where the woman fed the refugees in shifts in her dining room.
There were 20 cars in the caravan and they went through customs as a group, under the care of Border Angels volunteers. “They called us compañeros,” McGarry said, “which made us feel great. They were the kindest people and they watched out for us.”
Humboldt County people had also donated money, some of which paid for gas. The rest was donated to Border Angels. “They told us it would pay for food and utilities for two weeks at the shelter. Those are tangible real things,” she said. “For every twenty bucks that got handed to us, it saved someone’s life.”
McGarry would like to go again and is thinking about starting a chapter of Border Angels locally. After all, she left something near and dear to her in Tijuana.
Her old truck.
“It was a moment of truth. My old truck had over 305,000 miles on it. I’d been waiting for it to pass the 300,000 mile mark. I even took a picture of it when it did. I wondered, where will it be when it goes? It was on a quiet street in Tijuana.”
The truck seriously overheated and would not run. Even though she was offered help with getting it to a mechanic, McGarry decided it was time. She signed the paperwork over to Border Angels. They knew a mechanic and were thrilled at having a truck that they could fix and then haul supplies in.
“It has a new life,” McGarry said.
To donate directly, Border Angels 2258 Island Avenue, San Diego, CA 92138-6598
To talk to McGarry about starting a chapter, visit maureenmcgarry.com.
This story was updated from the print edition version.