A former volunteer at the Dallas Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center temporary shelter for migrant children has cherished memories but also concerns about some of what happened there and what might happen in the future to the children.
Kirsten Chilstrom is a special education teacher so she had experience with children when she volunteered to serve at the shelter when it opened in March.
She was there as the first bus after bus loaded with children from the southern border arrived.
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“They’ve come from a very traumatizing experience at the border and they don’t know who they can trust,” she said. “In the beginning, it was just trying to make the kids feel at ease and help them feel some kind of joy and hope again.”
Chilstrom said she went to the shelter every day after school and stayed until late at night talking with the kids, helping them create art and write letters.
One letter from a child went to his mother in Fort Worth and Chilstrom was there to witness a reunion.
“If he hadn’t written that tiny note, tell my Mom I love her, I really wonder how long he would have been held there or at worst he would have been transferred to another center,” Chilstrom said.
The teacher said she felt the Red Cross did a good job helping the US Government get the temporary shelter up and running.
But she learned of a troubling situation with buses in a parking lot behind the convention center where some children were kept for days, using restrooms, eating and sleeping on the buses.
She went to the parking lot to see for herself and spoke up about it.
“Speaking out for the boys, I knew that I would probably lose my volunteer access. But after two months of being there every single day, how can you watch such hurtful experiences and not say something,” Chilstrom said.
The circumstances surrounding those buses were under investigation when the situation became public on May 14.
Chilstrom said she has lasting memories of her time with the migrant children and the lessons she has learned from the challenges those children face.
“I feel just fortunate to be able to help them and to know them and I wish more people would take the time to be able to connect, embrace and uplift these kids who have dreams just like all of us,” Chilstrom said. “Who are we to ever be upset about a Starbucks order going wrong or waiting in traffic.”
She worries about how the future for those children who have not yet been united with relatives or sponsors.
“Some of them are doing great. There are three that reached out to me. And some are just lost in the system,” she said.
The government lease of the convention center for a temporary shelter ends June 2. Around 100 children were still reported to be held at the shelter on Thursday. The government has opened a much larger shelter at Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Chilstrom said there were too few volunteers to help all the children in Dallas and she fears there will be even fewer in El Paso at a larger shelter.