Creating a Bright Space at the Texas Border – Opening the Space for the Children
By Ileen Henderson, National Director of Bright Spaces
Flying home from Texas after a week in McAllen creating an amazing Bright Space, my mind is full of images, my heart is full of emotion, and my resolve is strong. The Humanitarian Respite Center (HRC) where we created the Bright Space is a wonderful place. I joined volunteers watching as hundreds of asylum seekers, coming from countries fraught with danger and violence, arrive at the HRC after release from detention. They hold the hands of their children tightly, carrying no possessions. They are exhausted and dazed, dehydrated and dirty, and wearing ankle monitors to track them, yet clearly resolute in their commitment to continue the journey to find a better life for their children. As they enter the HRC, it is inspiring to be a part of the welcome they are given by all the staff and volunteers – applause and shouts of bienvenido. Their faces brighten, their eyes come up off the floor to meet mine, and the joy of hope touches my heart.
Arriving on a Tuesday, the team of Bright Horizons and Bright Horizons Foundation for Children employees gathered at the warehouse of Catholic Charities, the sponsor of the HRC, and separated the children’s play equipment we had ordered from the vast quantity of other generously donated supplies that were organized there. After moving unneeded chairs and bed mats and old furniture and toys out of the space, we were delighted to see that we had cleared enough space to extend the children’s are to include a space not only for preschool children but also a needed area for youth and teens as well as one for babies and mothers.
As we began our setup, we announced in Spanish to the families why we were there and what we were going to do. We told them that we understood how dedicated they were to their children, how much their future meant to them, and that we too, and many others who could not be there, wanted to help them care for their children. We described the play area we would be creating and asked for their support as we worked. As faces lit up with understanding, these travelers who had been through so much turned to us and began to applaud and call out gracias with eyes beaming with gratitude. This moment will stay with me and buoyed our team through the exciting and exhausting process of creating the Bright Space.
Using what we know about children’s development, the science of trauma, as well as the important lessons of sustainability, we crafted a space filled with the rich opportunities for dramatic play, art, music, literacy and relaxation. Using many resources and materials generously donated by early childhood vendors, and Bright Horizons employees and families, we provided a space rich in activities, but not over stimulating; challenging, but not frustrating; with spaces to share important trusting relationships with caring adults but also space to be alone, reflect, and hear their own voices.
As we worked children came and went in the space, playing, resting, reading, writing, and engaging with the volunteers eager to share this time with them. Everything they did taught us more about what they needed – what was a good fit, what we should take out, put away, or extend – all working together to get the right balance of safety and joy. We added a supply cabinet for replenishing materials so that they could have variety with over abundance, activity kits for volunteers to spend easy quality time together, and mirrors to remember their own happy faces,
As another group of 100 new arrivals walked in, as the applause of the staff greeted them, their eyes came upon the new, richly layered play space. Adult eyes lit up, but not like the eyes of the children who walked through the space, initially afraid to touch, not sure what was allowed, but holding their breath with excitement. After a sustaining meal, a shower, and a fresh set of clothing, they were back to discover all that this special world had to offer them. As I watched with my colleagues, I was thrilled to see each area fill with children and volunteers and come alive with the beauty of childhood. For hours, we watched and played and delighted in the wonder of the children playing in the Bright Space, watching their parents look on with pleasure. There were so many affirming and enlightening moments and insights as we enjoyed the harvest of our efforts.
To commemorate the new addition to the HRC, children helped Sister Norma of Catholic Charities, the strong and wise leader of the initiatives at the center, to cut a ribbon and officially open the “Restoring Dignity Bright Space.” We joined staff, volunteers, and asylum seekers to break bread as one family with breakfast tacos and cupcakes. Everyone was a family for that moment, as we all are, as travelers on the road to making our world a better place for ourselves and for generations to come. Lunch with the amazing Sister Norma and her staff crowned our two days.
I have become refreshed in my hope for our country — a land built by immigrants also seeking a better life. I was delighted to encounter the best of our country and to watch as this was extended to our new resilient neighbors. Volunteers of all faiths and ideologies from across the United States and the world have traveled to McAllen to lend a hand, to do whatever they could to show friendship and support to our new arrivals who have suffered unknown and unimaginable hardships to be in this place.
This Bright Space is just one of many places where children and families can heal from the trauma of violence, poverty, and displacement. As we work to prevent these challenges, this space can serve as a symbol and a reminder that there is so much good in the world, so many helpers, as Mr. Rogers would say. We can all commit to doing one small thing whatever we are able to do, to contribute to remembering these children in McAllen and the children in the U.S. and the world whose lives are a constant struggle.