The sisters are back: Women religious volunteer at Casa Alitas Welcome Center

June 1, 2021
Photo Credit: Casa Alitas – Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona

By David Werning, Managing Editor

When Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona (CCSSOAZ) and director of CCSSOAZ’s Casa Alitas program, announced that “the sisters are back,” the staff shouted with joy.

In 2019 women religious had volunteered at Casa Alitas, which serves migrant families who have left their home countries to escape violence and poverty. The large number of families seeking asylum in the U.S. at that time required extra support and the sisters responded with great generosity, something the staff remembers well.

“The sisters are a special kind of volunteer,” Cavendish said. “As a group, they are so thoughtful, focused, and absolutely all-hands-on-deck. They just get in to the work, you can feel the mission in their work.”

Casa Alitas is welcoming large numbers of individuals and families once again, now that a new administration in Washington is more open to receiving migrants and refugees. When the Biden administration canceled the “Remain in Mexico” policy, many people started crossing the U.S./Mexico border. With the nation just emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for extra help was even greater since the regular volunteer base were still staying home. In response, Sister Donna Markham OP, PhD, president and CEO of CCUSA, with the help of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), called on the sisters once more to help at Catholic Charities agencies along the border.

At Casa Alitas, three orders have responded: The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, the Sisters of St. Francis of Mary Immaculate, and the Maryknoll Sisters (A list of sisters volunteering at the welcome center can be read at the end of this article.)

The sisters helped us to bridge a gap,” said Cavendish. “There is an ongoing gap in volunteers, and that will recover over time but the sisters came to us at exactly the right moment as our program was expanding again. We needed the stability of volunteers we could count on to provide service in a way that we trusted and valued while continuing to grow our local volunteer base.

With the sisters lending a hand, CCSSOZA staff are able to focus on many of the administrative and logistical tasks of helping newcomers transition to a new way of life and reach their final destination. The extra help is greatly appreciated with the greater numbers of guests passing through Casa Alitas. But the staff agree that the greater value the sisters provide centers on more intangible benefits.

Juliana Huntington, who is a site lead and volunteer coordinator for Casa Alitas, noted that the sisters are willing to do any task at the welcome center, whether it’s preparing food, helping in the clothing section, or assisting the medical team. “They are extremely consistent and efficient,” Huntington said, “and those traits go so incredibly far in the environment that we work in, which often means having to do a lot with little. They are valuable in all aspects and in all areas, but it’s the human touch they bring that is really special.”

Huntington shared a story about one sister who, in addition to regular volunteer chores, would make time to play with the children. “The parents who come to us are tired and stressed and working very hard to get where they are going,” Huntington said. “To have someone who is willing to engage their children so they can kind of have a moment to breathe, I think, is a really powerful thing that we don’t always consider, but it’s just what the parents needed.”

Cavendish summed up the value of the sisters’ volunteer work for Casa Alitas: “One beautiful heart connecting with another beautiful heart, giving people something special when they haven’t had anything special for a long time.”

Sisters volunteering at Casa Alitas from March 2021 to May 2021

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