Families from Mexico come across the border every month to St. Andrew’s Children’s Clinic in Nogales for medical care and support. But the Christmas clinic is the one they look forward to most.
Not only do children receive their appointments with doctors for everything from cleft palate treatment to speech and orthopedics, they leave with Christmas presents and treats. For many, it's the only Christmas they'll have.
On Thursday, St. Andrew’s hosted its December clinic for the first time in two years because of COVID. The day also served as a grand opening for the first permanent clinic space the nonprofit has had in its nearly 50-year history. Executive Director Laura Romero called it a blessing.
“All those hard months paid off in the end because people come and see what we're doing, it's real,” she said.
Romero, whose mother, Coca Romero, founded the organization, said their new location was made possible by several donors. They temporarily hosted the monthly clinics at the nonprofit Knights of Pythias in Nogales, and before that were for years at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Nogales.
“It was a miracle," Romero said of the new, bigger location. "I was talking to some of my donors because we didn't have a space and volunteers wanted to come, children and families wanted to come. It was before our October clinic and I was desperate. I called one of my donors and said, 'You need to come tomorrow and see where we are at. I need space.' They walked in and the next day they said, 'Laura, just rent a space,' and that's how it came about.”
The rent and utilities at the former retail store are covered through donors.
“This is a space we don't have to tear down and put up," Romero said. "We get to close the door and come back the next day and clean up after a long day and our families are happy, our volunteers are happy.”
Office Assistant Yadelle Valencia said getting the building ready took a lot of work.
“We had to put up ceilings, purchase a lot of things…tables, food and it's just a four-person office,” she said. “This job is everything — handyman, cleaning, loader, unloader — but, thankfully, we have a bunch of volunteers ready to help and very dedicated to the kiddos, which is, at the end of the day, what matters.”
Valencia said families travel from across Mexico to receive care from St. Andrew’s. Some travel for days to get there.
“It’s all different places and it's just word of mouth,” she said. “It's going to be about 50 years now helping kiddos and we started with seven people (patients) and now we’ve seen up to 250. We're not at that number here yet because we just got this facility but we hope to get to those numbers. Every grain of rice helps.”
Veronica Patricia and her daughter Maria Fernanda came to the clinic from Imuris, about 50 miles south of Nogales. It took them about three hours to get to the clinic.
“They have done a lot for me because my child has been with them since she was eight months old,” Veronica said. “She's had four surgeries and she also comes through for physical therapy and pediatrics.”
Maria Fernanda said her favorite part of the day was the presents, and she even got to help cut the ribbon at the new building.
“I was very shy,” she said.
Veronica Patricia said seeing the new space was a beautiful thing.
“It's not my clinic, but I feel some sort of emotion because I've been with them since she was 8 months old, and now she's 8 years,” she said. “It's very beautiful to see that they have a clinic that’s more formal and it's theirs, that way they can continue to help children like her.”
She was especially thankful for the Christmas festivities.
“Since this is Christmas, they don't see just medical, they don't see just appointments, they see toys and that's what catches their eye,” she said. “I'm glad she will actually get something to bring home for coming to the appointment.”
Some of the clinic’s volunteer medical professionals have also been with St. Andrew's for years.
Roxanna Holguin is a speech therapist who has been volunteering since 2008. She couldn’t come the last two years, but said it feels fitting that she started in a December clinic and got to return to one.
She works with children who have cleft palates, developmental delays, articulation and language problems, hearing issues and Down syndrome.
During the Christmas clinic, she worked with 10-year-old Victor Villalba Hernandez, who has a condition that causes the back of his throat and soft palate to not close off enough, allowing air to escape from his nose.
“That really changes their resonance and how they sound,” she said.
She said without St. Andrew’s, children like him might not get any medical care.
“The pandemic was a perfect experiment of what nobody would want to happen, but little ones who had a cleft palate didn't get it fixed during the pandemic because the St. Andrew’s Clinic wasn't involved,” she said. “If the clinic does not get in there and do it, it doesn't happen for them.”
Dr. Francisco Valencia is a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and a member of the St. Andrew’s board.
He has been active with the clinic since he was a teenager. He had a sports injury and the doctor who helped him in Tucson was among the first who worked at the clinic.
“He said, 'You're interested in science and you're bilingual, perhaps you would like to see what we do,'” he said. He went, "then it was like…they are doing something, I'll go back one more time, one more.”
“It just snowballed. “There's so many points that your path can diverge in your career, and it's been special and great being part of this.”
Valencia said he especially likes the Christmas element of the December clinic, and always looks forward to the toys the Green Valley Recreation Woodworkers Club brings.
“I love to see what the woodworkers from Green Valley bring down,” he said. “Can I do something? I'll sand them or something. I want to try to be part of it. It’s easy to go to the store and buy a toy but to make it, it's so special.”
Green Valley gives
Volunteers and supporters from Green Valley, where the St. Andrew’s business office is located, are always a part of the December clinic. Some help out all year.
Among them this year was members of the GVR Woodworkers Club, who have been building toys for St. Andrew's since 1988.
Lance Johnson, toy program coordinator, said they always bring their very best work.
“It’s been two years, so we have been off for a while and so we have a mishmash of toys, some that are older and some newer," he said.
The group starts making toys in January and finishes up around May, holding onto them until Christmas. They brought about 170 toys to the event.
Johnson said of their 450 members, about 45 work to make the toys and another 20 to 25 paint them.
“I am just so grateful to the 65 or 70 volunteers who do this work,” he said. “There’s so much that goes into it.”
Johnson said they were happy to be back, and seeing the children’s reactions, makes him want to do it all over again.
“It gives me the energy to do it again next year,” he said. “For me, by May I'm a little burned out and then after we have this event we are energized again and ready to go.”
“After this, we will get together and have a meeting and invite the people who were here and they'll give feedback on what these kids liked. Then we will make next year's toys based on that.”
Valley Presbyterian Church in Green Valley has also been a supporter for years.
Pastor Craig Lindsey gave St. Andrew’s a check for $8,250, gathered by the congregation in support of the new building.
“St Andrew’s is one we have long been supporting through donations, through coming down to volunteer at the monthly clinics,” he said. “Now this (space) is going to be open all the time, so we went to the congregation and said, ‘Would you like to support this? Perhaps they can build their own building.’ Then we discovered they were having this donation of this building and we raised $8,250 from the congregation for this work.”
For him, it’s exciting to see both the families and new space.
“It is so delightful, not just to see the kids — which is heartwarming, especially kids with cleft palate and spina bifida — but, to see the space,” he said. “To see the volunteers who worked so hard to put all this together. It's beautiful.”
Romero said there must have been 50 to 55 families at the clinic, and she hopes to see it keep growing.
“We did our first clinic in the new space here in November which was small, like a little trial run,” she said. “December is our biggest clinic, it's our holiday clinic, so we said let's just do it.”
Being back, seeing volunteers give children gifts and families get the care they need, is something she has been dreaming about the last two years.
“For some of these kids it's their only Christmas,” she said. “Not being able to do it for two years, it was really hard, because you would think of them back home, like, ‘How are they doing? Are they getting a Christmas? Are they seeing a doctor?'”
“It was just so hard that we just wanted to come back so bad. We are their last hope and I'm so happy we're back and volunteers are back. I just want communities to know, we are here and we are still working very, very much."