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They came from Minnesota and the New York City area. A family of three -- mother, father, teenage daughter -- was from Philadelphia. Someone else came from Iowa. One woman was from Ohio. A nurse practitioner traveled from her home in rural Connecticut. The closest to a local person was a woman from Houston.
From all these far flung parts of America, they arrived in McAllen, Texas in the Rio Grande Valley on a recent weekend.
In all, there were sixteen people, volunteers from a Minneapolis-based volunteer service organization called Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org). The organization runs projects all around the world. Most of its programs are outside the U.S. Only a handful are in the United States. Wherever it operates, Global Volunteers vows to work only where invited, often in cooperation with local organizations, and with its volunteers doing short-term service — a week or two or three — working "should-to-shoulder" with local people.
On Sunday, the volunteers gathered for the first time around two long tables in the large kitchen-dining area between the men's and women's quarters of a spare building in a dusty lot in San Juan, a sprawling, low-slung town of 30,000 that neighbors McAllen.
The volunteer program leader, Jeff Rogo, 71, of St, Petersburg, Florida, asked everyone to tell why they were there.
Bonnie Max, a New Yorker, said, "I want my life to get wider, not narrower."
Mike Franklin, a rheumatologist from Philly, said, "As I have aged, I have become more open-minded rather than more close-minded."
With the exception of two teenagers -- one was his daughter -- and one young mother who brought her son, everyone was retired. This was part of their second act.
Greg Potvin, 75, and Marcia Potvin, 72, drove their van all the way from northern Minnesota. Greg had been a probation and parole officer for the state. Marcia was a public school teacher for 30 years.
"I'd been working in state government for almost forty years and I had enough," Greg said. "We had both said we work to live and as soon as we could figure out how to live without working, we're going to do it."
They retired in 2007, first Marcia, then Greg, a few months later. They had always been world travelers, sometimes as volunteers, sometimes as tourists. Now free of the obligations of career, they became hardcore volunteers. By the time they came to Texas, they had taken part in projects in Cuba, China, Peru, Ecuador, India, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Romania and Jamaica. In Ethiopia, Greg helped build a bridge.
"This is what we're supposed to do,” Marcia said. “We're supposed to walk humbly. We're supposed to do justice. We're supposed to be kind. I think it’s an obligation."
Since the pandemic struck two years ago, an estimated 3.3 million Americans have retired, a significant increase over pre-pandemic years and many more than projected. Some analysts say the Great Resignation, which coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, was mostly the Great Retirement, with the job losses disproportionately 65-74 year olds who will never go back to work. Of course, some of them would have retired during this period anyway. But it's believed the Covid rampage that has killed nearly one million Americans caused many -- we can't ever know how many -- to re-evaluate their lives and conclude there is more to life than working.
Holly Leitch, 65, of Houston spent 40 years working in the energy sector. She worked hard and she liked it. But Covid profoundly changed her perspective.
"I think Covid opened me up to thinking life is not going to go on forever," Holly remembered. "I wanted to make sure I spent time with people that I really liked being around, the people that I love. You don't know if your number will be called and you're not around anymore."
She retired in 2021, a year after her husband. That fall, she went with Global Volunteers to West Virginia, an area impoverished by the declining coal industry. She wanted to go there because it reminded her of where she had grown up in southern Illinois, which was also badly affected by the shutting down of mines.
"I wanted to continue to learn and that's where the volunteer aspect comes in in my retirement," Holly explained. "I don't want to sit and chill. When I'm 85, I'll sit and chill. Not now."
The Rio Grande Valley would be her second Global Volunteers program.
Later Sunday, the newly-arrived volunteers filed into a claustrophobic conference room in a nearby building to meet Ann Cass, head of Proyecto Azteca, the Rio Grande Valley community service with whom Global Volunteers was partnering.
Cass, 76, who is in her 30th and final year with Proyecto Azteca, filled them in about the community where they would serving
The McAllen area is a conglomeration of contiguous small cities, towns and rural areas rapidly subsiding into residential neighborhoods located very close to the southern tip of Texas and pressed hard against the U.S.-Mexico border.
It was, Cass said, the second poorest urban area in America (Number 1 is Brownsville, an hour plus to the south south). The median annual income is just over $17,000. The official poverty rate -- the percentage of people -- is a sliver under 32 percent. An estimated 38-81 percent of the families in the colonias -- some of the poorest areas in unincorporated areas -- don't know where their next meal will come from. A third of the 870,000 people in Hidalgo County have no health insurance. There is no public hospital in the county. Half of the children who start kindergarten will not graduate high school. The population is overwhelmingly Mexican-American. You hear more Spanish spoken than English.
This is America.
The volunteers left the briefing upset and just maybe a little angry.
The next day they would be deployed to their assignments. Some would go to a construction site where Proyecto Azteca was renovating a woman's home. Some would go to the local food bank, to stack and stock meals. A few including Mike, the physician, went to a free mobile medical clinic. Some went go to the Catholic Charities Refugee Respite Center in downtown McAllen where each day dozens or hundreds of new immigrants would arrive to await transportation to their destinations all around the country. Most were headed to where they had family. They were in the country legally and could remain while awaiting disposition of their asylum claims, according to Ann Cass. They were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones got caught entering illegally and are expelled — even those intending to petition for asylum — or else jailed in the U.S.
Gail Ferguson, 57, comes from a tiny town in the very middle of Nebraska. She and her husband, Larry, still live there but they own a home not far from McAllen which is where they spend their winters.
In 1999, Gail, was working at a medical device company. To qualify for full retirement, she would need 85 points -- a combination of work service and age. She did the math. She would attain 85 points in 20 years. She scribbled "2019" on a sticky note and pasted it to her office computer. That was when she would retire.
“On my 30th anniversary, I gave notice that i was going to retire that year," Gail told me. "I think if I wouldn't have planned it and that wouldn't have been my goal, it would have been very, very difficult for me to leave."
As it was, it was difficult.
"The first month, two months, I probably sobbed everyday," she said. "It was definitely a process. I lost everything I was connected to."
Gail had gone on volunteer missions before. Now, she plunged into it with fervor. She and Larry went to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific in January 2020. When the early onslaught of the Covid pandemic finally eased last summer, she went with Global Volunteers to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Now she was in the Rio Grande Valley. She went to every site. She worked in the clinic. She went to the respite center. She spent two days at the food pantry. One day, she joined Holly and a Proyecto Azteca worker nicknamed Compadre, helping rehab the house. Compadre was a character. Now 59 and a great-grandfather, he had immigrated from Mexico when he was 7. He was a carpenter but still worked at times as a seasonal migrant worker, ranging from Texas to Michigan to pick apples, onions and cantaloupe.
I asked Gail if she believed her efforts changed anything.
“I never walk into these things thinking I'm going to change anything," Gail said. "It’s changing me.”
Gail is a tiny woman, barely 5 feet tall and speaks with soft, gentle voice that nonetheless commands authority. She is wise and kind.
“I’ve seen a lot of different things, which is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to see how other people are living, not in a bad way. I think it helps me understand the world a little better, without judging. It helps me be a better person. It all makes me think about things in a different way.”
At first sight, seen in the morning, the refugee respite center is jarring. Dozens of people lay on thin pads on the floor in a room approximately the size of two basketball courts placed side by side. The lights are on and bright sunlight streams through large windows open onto a commercial street of mostly bargain basement discount stores. Some of the youngest children sleep soundly despite the light. The adults have begun to stir.
In an adjacent room, breakfast -- eggs, beans and tortillas on this day, maybe everyday -- is cooking in industrial size vats. In this room, there are a couple of dozen long tables to which some of the refugees have already gravitated. In a corner, a heavily tattooed Latina lays inertly. Her right leg is stretched out, immobilized by a splint. The first time you see her, she is weeping hysterically. A few minutes later, she is smiling and laughing, then engaged in deep whispered conversation in Spanish with a Black woman. A few minutes after that, she’s crying again.
In the larger room volunteers, workers and some of the immigrants begin collecting the sleeping pads and stack them in a corner. The last of the sleeping children are roused. The day has begun.
On one side of the room, there is a long counter where helpers book transportation for the immigrants to their destinations. Many will travel by bus. Some will fly. On another side, two seated medical workers perform Covid tests. And on a third side is the long high counter behind which volunteers dispense over-the-counter medications. There’s demand for Ibuprofen and indigestion medications.
The refugees will be held at the respite center from two to five days. While they are there, there’s not much to do except wait. Volunteers bring games and coloring books to occupy the children. Some kids toss or kick a ball. Other volunteers move about the room asking what people need for clothing. There's a warehouse across the street stuffed with donated items. The immigrants are not allowed to leave themselves, so volunteers have take their requests, go to the warehouse and retrieve what they can. Almost everyone needs something. A belt. Shoes. Underwear. A shirt. Pants. Most of what they ask for will not be in the warehouse or else not in the correct size.
The immigrants at the center entered through Mexico. Some came from as far away as Africa or China. Lately, there have been a handful of Ukrainians. On this day, inexplicably, the largest number were from Nicaragua. Quite a few were Haitians. Almost no one speaks much more English than to say thank you.
One day, Marcia Potvin met a 13-year-old boy named Christian who spoke excellent English. He told her he'd spent four years living with relatives in Maryland, then had gone to Honduras in order to return with his mother and two sisters via Mexico. For four months, they had taken buses and what he called "trailers" making their way north. Sometimes, he told her, they walked. They finally reached the Mexican border town of Reynosa. They spent the next six months in a tent encampment.
"I said, 'Where did you cook your food?'" recalled Marcia. "He said, there were four places we could go and pick up food but we had to bring it back to our tent to eat. I said, 'Did you have books or school stuff?' He kind of chuckled and said no. I said, 'Well, what did you do?' He said, 'We couldn't go outside. It was too dangerous to go outside because of the Mafia.'" He said if they get somebody they keep them and try to get money from their families (in the U.S.). I asked him if he was scared. He said yes, he was scared."
The day Holly spent at the respite center, she met a little girl. They were immediately intrigued by each other. Despite the language barrier, they managed to exchange names. The girl was Angie. She was 7 years old and there with her father and her mother. Her mother was ailing from having suffered a recent miscarriage. The family had come from Nicaragua and were waiting to travel on to Miami where they had relatives.
Volunteering at the food pantry was mind-numbing physical work. In the morning, the volunteers would pull cans of donated food from a huge cardboard box, check the expiration dates (which is not nearly as easy as it may sound) and then stack the unexpired cans in another huge cardboard box. Eventually, these canned goods would go to food banks throughout the Valley.
In the afternoon, the volunteers would form a kind of assembly line and pack "senior boxes," food kits for needy senior citizens. Into each would go two boxes of cereal, beans, milk, orange juice and canned food. It is tedious work but after a while, you slip into a kind of robotic rhythm, almost like a trance, and actually don't want it to be interrupted or even slowed. And with each item you stuff into the box, you let yourself imagine someone hungry opening that box. Connie Ramos, CEO of the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley, said they serve 76,000 people each week.
It took the Potvins several days to drive home. They were in no hurry. I spoke to them by phone the day after they arrived. I asked them what was the highlight of their week in the Rio Grande Valley.
“This is probably silly,” Greg said. “But I loved them being able to sit at their table and to serve them food, handing it to them and greeting them. I am in awe of those people and what they’ve been through to get here.”
“Those are just respectful things,” said Marcia. “Goodness knows, after stuff those refugees have been through, they need to be respected or just to know that we care.”
A few days after the volunteer program ended, Gail and her husband got into their car and headed to the border to spend the day in Mexico. On their way, they passed a semi. Gail looked over. On the side of the truck was the emblem of the food pantry.
She said, “And I thought, ‘Wow, I was a part of that.’”
As she was getting off the plane in Houston, Holly looked ahead at the line of passengers getting off. She noticed a little girl ahead. She wore a mask but she seemed familiar. The girl looked back at saw Holly. It was Angie from the respite center with her mom and dad. At the gate, they spoke as best they could given the language barrier. The family was changing flights in Houston. They were on their way to Miami.
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who once said, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
He was wrong.