A small group of kids kneel on the rug, engrossed in placing one of many figures—men, women, children, babies—into tiny toy coffins. Some sit gazing at the person inside, some set the lid firmly on top. Other children bury things deep in a sandbox. In the “storm room,” stuffed animals wait on wall-to-wall futons for any who come in, close the door and privately act out anger, be wild, cry, snuggle with an animal buddy.
This is Gerard’s House, Santa Fe’s unique haven for grieving children, adolescents and their families, where, says its mission statement, “healing happens through acceptance and peer support.” The need this nonprofit has met, free of charge since 1997, is indispensible. Recently, says Executive Director Katrina Koehler, Gerard’s House recognized another population going unserved: a growing influx of immigrant children. “We saw so much death, and a lot of other losses among those newly arrived from troubled areas of Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and not a lot of reasons for them to trust coming to us,” Katrina says. “Which was understandable.” She says the staff imagined the immigrant kids and their families saying, ‘Who are these people?’ So we invited the Latino community to collaborate with us. We told them, ‘Here’s how we serve grieving kids.’ And we listened to the families’ needs.” And in many ways, their needs were similar to those of the children Gerard’s House already helps who are grieving death of family members; but in many other ways, their needs were much more complicated. “It was hard,” Katrina says, “for a lot of mothers to bring their kids here—some work multiple jobs, some don’t have a car.” And culturally, Bilingual Coordinator Roxana Melendez adds, “Therapy isn’t something Spanish families seek. We tend to look for support more from family members and religious leaders. For some families, it’s difficult to open up to someone they don’t know.” There’s also a belief, Roxana says, that only crazy people need therapy. “We didn’t want to load more burdens onto these families, so many of whom had been through so much human crises already!” Katrina says.
Gerard’s House decided to go to the schools. Those on the Southside have large numbers of youth from these countries. “We could easily offer grief peer groups right there, in a familiar place. And so many of those teachers, school counselors, the wellness team, and social workers are Latino, so they’re Spanish-speaking and have a deep cultural understanding of the kids, even those who are not bi-cultural.” Roxana adds, “Generally, families trust the schools their children go to. They usually have a counselor or teacher they’ve connected with, so when one of those figures speaks to the families about Nuestra Jornada, it’s sometimes easier for them to allow their children to be in our groups.”
Soon after the program began, “Group after group after grief-counseling group filled up,” Katrina says—these groups embodied a container for grieving immigrant kids who’re brought together with others like themselves. “They need to breathe, unwind, tell their stories,” Roxana says, “and have a facilitator empathize, acknowledging, ‘That’s a lot you’ve been through!’” Their circle of losses widens out far beyond the death of a parent or other family member. They may also have experienced a loved one being “disappeared”—which is to say, a relative being kidnapped on the way to the border—or they themselves may have been kidnapped. A child or teenager may have been forced to flee gang violence, leaving family and friends behind. Once here, a parent might be suddenly incarcerated or deported.
And every refugee child has lost their home. “Imagine coming up through Mexico by yourself and crossing the border, a child, not speaking the language once you’re here, not feeling welcome, not acclimated, and not able to grieve all you’ve left behind,” Katrina says. And imagine “the shock of everything being new and so different,” Roxana adds, “after everything you went through.” You’d need someone to reflect back to you, “to tell you,” she says, “‘Wow, that must’ve been really hard for you! And then what happened to your little brother?’”
Often, after having absorbed so much trauma, the only defense a child has is to “go flat.” “It’s like they’re frozen,” Katrina explains. “So, on top of grief, they have to go through a trauma-unthawing process. When human beings live through one atrocity after another, they’re in a state of personal shock, and it’s hard to be fully present. The facilitator helps that child feel safe to be as upset as she really is, and to know they’re not alone in the high seas without a boat—the child can feel, ‘The facilitator understands me, and is with me.’”
Additionally, in a peer group, where everyone has this magnitude of loss in common, everybody understands how lonely and scary it is. “Nobody is judging, they’re all just listening to each other,” Roxana says. This level of sharing, however, doesn’t happen on its own. Early on at one school, two third grade boys in the same classroom went almost to the end of the year before even discovering they were both from Guatemala. Then, in a Nuestra Jornada group, one boy shared his story and the other boy said, “Really? That happened to me and my dad, too.” Children, like adults, fear being stigmatized. No one outside of the grief peer group wants to bring up the subject of death or loss. But in the groups, the kids are eager to hear each others’ stories. Katrina, her face alive with excitement, describes the kids’ responses to those stories. “’I relate to that!’ they say. ‘Now we can talk! I have a connection with you. That’s like my story!’ And they’re lighting up inside.”
Katrina likens the grief peer groups to cocoons. Caterpillars, when inside, completely liquefy; so do the children as they fall apart “into that life-transforming process of going way down into the grief and finding, ‘Yeah, this is hard and there’s pain here, but it’s not as horrible as I thought—in fact, I’m somehow feeling better and it’s actually easier than all the energy it takes to try to keep myself from changing.’” When some of the Nuestra Jornada children first come to a grief peer group, “They’re barely able to tell their story. It’s an honor to be there with them. They’re the ones doing that, finding their voice. We’re their support—we companion them,” Katrina says. Those who’ve never experienced their grief tend to want to fix those who’re going through it. But she adds, “We’re not fixing them. The medicine that we’re giving them is helping them access their inner wisdom, and that’s a medicine that they carry with them forever.”
A native Santa Fean, Roxana is herself a child of immigrant parents. “A lot of these kids’ reality is also my reality.” She knows what it is to live in fear of deportation. “I have to check first, too, to see who it is at the door. I can’t take away the kids’ pain. We all just have to let go and trust something bigger, and return that support. We all need to be here for each other—we’re human, we need to share joy! When the kids thank me, I say, ‘Thank you! Honestly! For not giving up—that’s so inspiring.’” Katrina agrees. “These kids are so resilient! They’ve gone through so much, and they’re here to fight. They tell us, ‘I’m going to study hard, be passionate, and make my life more than just a sad story.’”
So many of the Nuestra Jornada youth suffered gang violence in their home countries. “They tell stories about going to school, coming home, going to school—that’s all—just to try to stay out of a gang,” Roxana says. “You can either murder people or be killed. There’s no going back once you’ve escaped that.” Some of these regions are active warzones. The facilitator training manual for Nuestra Jornada volunteers goes on to explain, “A violent, militant and oppressive culture has gained power… A devaluing of human life, and especially of women and children, has become the norm… When this happens for several generations, it results in a culture of ongoing trauma where certain things are not acknowledged because surviving is more important.” Once a family has left such a region, the manual continues, “Adults understandably want to protect children from the stories of horrors, atrocities and other suffering… In these cases, trauma and unresolved grief that the child may not be consciously aware of are permeating the family home. Children and teenagers tend to perceive—and be affected by—this undisclosed suffering far more than most adult family members realize.” These psychic legacies are so confusing to kids; once a facilitator helps children understand that what happened was another loss, a light goes on and “the rest is an organic process of healing,” with the facilitator as witness, listening and accepting. “When peers also share and relate to these experiences, it adds another layer of healing and integration”; this, the manual says, is one way Nuestra Jornada can be extraordinarily helpful.
Nothing, however, cancels out homesickness. After all the stories about the American Dream, Roxana says, “They tell me, ‘This is it? We didn’t have enough money or food, but I could go outside and play soccer!’” And they weren’t vilified or discriminated against. As one teenager wrote, “I miss them and love them with all my soul,” about the friends and family she left behind. “Bless my country El Salvador.”
“We owe these kids a cocoon when they’re grieving,” Katrina says, “so they can become butterflies.” Having lived through so much atrocity, survived it, processed through it and come out the other side, those graduates of the Nuestra Jornada groups are bringing a gift to our community, Katrina believes. “Imagine,” she says, “if we knew how to sit with someone who’s grieving in our culture. They know how to grieve, and they know how to heal themselves. They’re emotionally literate now. As they grow up, knowing how to address their grief and trauma symptoms, they’ll be much less likely to fall prey to addictions and violence. Living among us, they’re modeling emotional maturity to the rest of us.”
Nuestra Jornada means Our Journey. It’s a quiet statement that packs a wallop, a reminder that our world is a much bigger picture than the small, mean-spirited view that dictates returning children to the violence and poverty they so recently escaped. These children belong in our community. They know something we don’t, and they can teach it to us. It’s a journey we take together.
To learn more about Gerard’s House and to see how you can support the organization go to gerardshouse.org.
Story by Gail Snyder