Spotlight On: REFORMA’S Children in Crisis Project

From time to time here on the LEE & LOW blog we like to shine a spotlight on organizations, companies, or projects that move us. Today we’re featuring a special project close to our heart: the Children in Crisis Project from REFORMA, the National Association To Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos.

Preparing books for donation (image from REFORMA website)

Last year, over 70,000 unaccompanied children crossed the Southern border into the United States. This is a true humanitarian crisis, with many of these children ending up in detention centers, awaiting immigration processing or deportation. They have few or no personal belongings, don’t know English, and have been separated from their families with no sense of if or when they will be reunited.

Oralia Garza de Cortes, Lucía Gonzalez, and Patrick Sullivan are three longtime members of REFORMA who were moved to help. They implemented the Children in Crisis project to solicit donations, purchase, and deliver books and backpacks to the children in detention centers. In the first phase of the drive, they raised enough funds and donations to deliver 300 books to children in the McAllen Texas Centralized Processing Center, and they have since delivered several hundred more. Currently they are coordinating donations of backpacks that will contain books as well as paper, pencils, erasers, crayons and a writing journal for children to use in their journey toward their destination.

The project is a moving illustration of how librarians essentially serve as caretakers of their communities, bridging the gap between resources and the people who need them. “As the immigrant child that I was, I remember that first librarian taking me to the Spanish section with three or four Spanish books. I hope every child will find that librarian, like an oasis in a desert,” said Lucía Gonzalez.

When asked why they felt that librarians should have a role in outreach to these children, Oralia Garza de Cortes said, “We reached out as a humanitarian cause, just something so overwhelming that we really had to come together to do something.”

Patrick Sullivan added, “It’s also a counterbalance to some of those xenophobic Americans. The initial reception that some of these people received . . . was depressing and doesn’t show how we are as Americans. Librarians reach out to their communities every day and this was something we had to respond to. ”

The process for getting the books into children’s hands was a challenging one, given detention centers’ heavy regulation and policing. The group made contact with the border patrol, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and even contractors in order to find a way to deliver the books. “The books were welcome, but the problem was getting in touch with the right people,” said Sullivan. They were prohibited from entering the detention facilities themselves to deliver the books.

Delivering books to a shelter. (image from REFORMA website)

Although it would be an added effort, the group decided to include bookplates in each donated book, an idea that came from longtime REFORMA member Sandra Ríos Balderamma.  “It was cumbersome, but to have the message in the book saying, ‘This is your book, and you’re free to take it wherever you want and it will give you light and be your companion,’ it was a very powerful message,” said Garza de Cortes.

Said Gonzalez, “For many of them this is the first book they own and it is a very unique experience.”

The group hopes the donated books will serve as the beginning, not the end, of children’s relationship with their libraries.  “What we’d like to do is interject ourselves to those kids who will eventually end up in the United States,” said Sullivan. “There are contacts that can happen that go beyond just the books. We’re trying to convey the idea that libraries are these free open places with lots of information.”

“The families need guidance,” said Gonzalez. “If they don’t have a place like the public library, where are they going to go? How are they going to get this information?”

Garza de Cortes, Gonzalez, and Sullivan were named 2015 Movers & Shakers by School Library Journal for their work. You can learn more about ways to help here.

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