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Opinion: How do you thank so many people in San Diego for stepping up to help immigrant children?

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 7/16/2021 Sandy McBrayer
a group of people standing in a room: California elected leaders took a tour of the temporary youth shelter at the convention center in March. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune) California elected leaders took a tour of the temporary youth shelter at the convention center in March. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

McBrayer is the CEO of the Children’s Initiative and an advocate for children, youth and families. She lives in Tierrasanta.

How do you properly thank the leadership at the county and city of San Diego for stepping up to help others they didn’t even know? How do you properly thank so many residents, community partners and local businesses of San Diego for restoring your faith that yes, every day, kind people give themselves to others without a thought?

For the last three months, I had the privilege to work at the San Diego Convention Center with the federal emergency intake shelter, supporting unaccompanied minors on their journey for asylum. While working countless hours was sometimes hard, tiring and even frustrating, every single day of these last few months has without question been joyful and rewarding.

It was joyful to watch thousands — and yes, I mean thousands — of San Diegans work and volunteer to support these children day and night. We had federal staff from 35 federal departments and the U.S.-based nongovernmental organization Kids In Need of Defense from around the country, all of whom left their own homes and families and hopped on planes to be at our side to offer help and support.

We reached out to countless local businesses, donors, foundations and associations who all stepped up and offered support to these children on their journey. The arts and sports communities jumped, including the San Diego Symphony, the San Diego Ballet, Space 4 Art, Drummers without Borders, the San Diego Loyal soccer club, Outdoor Outreach and so many more. Each day my heart filled as I watched our San Diego youth-serving community providers give their all. None more so than SBCS (formerly known as South Bay Community Services), which coordinated and facilitated the entire effort with ease, love and unmeasured compassion. It is a leader and model for all.

As a native San Diegan, my pride swelled as I watched the county of San Diego, the city of San Diego and the Convention Center leadership ask not “Why we should help?” but “How and when can we help?” Their partnership to support these children demonstrated that we believe that helping others is part of the fabric of San Diego, that helping those in need is what makes us a strong, caring region, that we are a “can do” place and that we put others’ needs before our own.

leadership ask not “why we should help?” but “how and when can we help? ”

The San Diego emergency intake shelter has set the standard across the country for caring for these vulnerable youth. We offered education support with the San Diego County Office of Education, medical care provided by Rady Children’s Hospital, mental health support from San Ysidro Health Center, dental care from the San Diego Dental Society and vision care from the Mercy Outreach Surgical Team.

We even had a library supported by the county and city library systems, REFORMA, staff from the Children’s Initiative and hundreds of San Diegans who sent books! Everyone stepped in to support and offer hope to children who were alone seeking our help, children from 11 countries from Central and South America seeking asylum.

While our capacity at the Convention Center was 1,450 children at any given time, the onsite federal and local case managers worked double time to unify children with families and sponsors.

In less than 90 days, more than 2,400 children were unified with their families across 45 states.

Watching a young girl leap into her father’s arms when he arrived for her or meeting a sister who flew from the Midwest to reunite with her younger sibling whom she had not seen in five years was heartwarming and an experience that will stay with me. They saw with their own eyes that their daughter, sister, son and brother were finally safe.

Safe and resilient is what we saw firsthand. These unattended children came to us scared, confused and apprehensive. They did not know if we would welcome them, care for them or support them. They knew that back home, where they came from, their lives were in danger. What they needed from San Diego was a safe haven, a place to regroup and the belief that they mattered, their lives mattered and that we as adults would not let them down.

What I know is that some of us are fortunate to be born in this country, into our families, and that not everyone is that fortunate. We have a responsibility to care for others in need, with less luck than we have. It is fundamental to who I am, to the thousands of staff and volunteers who helped, and to all the federal staff who came to assist. I believe that is what San Diego stands for.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.

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