Usually when crisis hits, it's obvious. There are lights and sirens. Bullhorns and walkie-talkies. Hundreds of people in uniform scurrying to help.

You don't see any of that at 800 N. Country Club Road in Tucson.

Make no mistake, the former Benedictine Monastery plays a role in what everyone agrees is a humanitarian crisis — there just aren't any signs of it inside or out.

The monastery is the third-largest shelter in the United States helping tens of thousands of Central Americans who are seeking asylum, said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for Catholic Community Services. They operate the monastery and two smaller shelters as part of their Casa Alitas program.

Thanks to 400 volunteers, including about 50 from the Green Valley Sahuarita Samaritans, the Casa Alitas program provides temporary shelter to migrants along with food, clothing and hygiene items. They also help them contact family members who will make travel arrangements for them and will provide a place to stay while they wait for court dates. Every day, volunteers give them rides to the bus station, too.

Since late January, the program has provided services to 7,500 people — roughly the same number of migrants it had served over the previous four years combined, Cavendish said. 

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland, Border Patrol officers apprehended nearly 99,000 people crossing the U.S. southern border in April, the highest figure since 2007. Another 10,000 presented themselves at the border, many of them asylum seekers. Statistics show 68 percent of those trying to cross the border are children or people traveling as families. 

Others pitch in

Casa Alitas helps the largest portion of migrants in Tucson, but is not alone in caring for them. The program partners with Rincon Congregational UCC and Trinity Presbyterian Church, which each operate one small shelter. The Inn Project, run by the United Methodist Church, also has a small shelter and there are a couple of other churches that operate "pop-up" shelters when the need arises, Cavendish said.

Around Easter, Tucson saw its largest influx of asylum seekers. The city and the county had to open temporary shelters when the existing ones couldn't handle the demand. All told, there were about 700 asylum seekers at the time, she said. Most stay 24-72 hours.

It's not just geography that prompts immigration officers to bring people to Tucson from as far as the El Paso Border Patrol sector, Cavendish said.

"It’s geography and it’s efficiency, quite honestly. Phoenix, in theory, could receive more people but they are not organized and have not been able to stand up anything that’s on this scale," Cavendish said. "Some of it is lack of space, but some of it is absolutely they are not currently organized at that level. Phoenix has 35 different groups and they’re not working with each other effectively."

The program had several years under its belt before the U.S. began seeing this latest huge influx. It was created five years ago to assist Central Americans who had just begun fleeing poverty and violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. When the new owner of the monastery, seeing the need, offered to let asylum seekers and migrants stay at the facility until July 31, Catholic Community Services gratefully accepted.

On Wednesday, the immigration officers were scheduled to drop off 140 asylum seekers at the monastery. Thirty-four others were waiting to get on buses to nine states and another 100 migrants were still resting throughout the monastery from their journey.

The drill

Roughly 100 people a day volunteer at the monastery with most working four-hour shifts, Cavendish said. When the migrants arrive, they are taken into the sanctuary where volunteers introduce themselves and the program. They are then asked a few questions and get medically evaluated before being shown where they'll be sleeping and eating and where they can pick up some donated clothing, shoes and toys. During their stay, the children are invited to participate in art therapy and English as a Second Language classes.

Volunteer duties are largely dependent upon language skills. Those who don't speak Spanish often help out in the kitchen, sort and distribute donated clothing and clean. Without them, there would be no Casa Alitas, Cavendish said.

The program has never lacked volunteers. There are three training sessions for new volunteers a week, she said. Cavendish said volunteers have left their homes back East to spend help out at the monastery. 

"We’re being watched," she said. "Other parts of the country are observing us and coming to join us in our work. It's harder for people in other parts of our country to feel they can have an impact on what they believe, so they’ll come and join us and spend a week, a month at times, not feeling helpless about what’s happening."

Those volunteers, along with snowbird volunteers, then go home and share their experiences, she said.

"We get contacted quite a bit by small places in Minnesota, Maine, Vermont where folks have returned home," Cavendish said. "They’re returning home to their churches, their synagogues, their communities and doing speeches at libraries and these people call us and ask us for information because they’ve heard what their community member has experienced or shared."

This week, Susie George is wrapping up her three-month stint as a volunteer. The Minneapolis resident took a leave of absence as a church office manager to work at the monastery's registration desk, to clean rooms and drive asylum seekers to the bus station. She became interested in U.S. immigration policies while visiting a friend in Mexico several years ago.

"I hate that it's coming to an end. It's hard for me to leave because the work's not done," she said. "I feel grateful for having been able to be there for our guests and being able to help. I'm exhausted at night but I'm always happy to go back in the morning."

George likened Casa Alitas to a well-oiled machine that is incredibly "fluid and flexible." 

"I am amazed by them, they're really phenomenal," George said of the volunteers.

Local assistance

For years, the Green Valley Sahuarita Samaritans have been offering aid to migrants in the desert, attending Operation Streamline hearings in federal court and feeding people at the comedor in Nogales, Sonora. Volunteering with Casa Alitas just seemed a natural progression, several volunteers said.

Part-time Green Valley resident Sara Busey doesn't speak Spanish but she's kept herself busy sorting clothes, helping with food prep and packing travel bags for the people at the monastery. She often signs volunteers in and out at the reception desk.

"(The Samaritans) real mission is to prevent deaths in the desert, but wherever migrants need help, we'll be there," she said. 

Green Valley resident Barbara Brusstar has been supporting her husband, Jaime's, efforts with the Samaritans for 13 years. She decided to get more actively involved after she heard about the monastery. She's been driving asylum seekers to the bus station on Wednesdays and Thursdays for a month. She sits and chats with them while they wait for their bus to arrive.

She is always overwhelmed by how grateful they are.

Barbara Lemmon, a 10-year Samaritan veteran, has been spending eight to 10 hours a week at the monastery. The retired nurse lived in Mexico for four years and has taken a keen interest in the issues of Central America. She helps at intake and has seen a lot of patients with upper respiratory illnesses – illnesses she attributes to the poor conditions the migrants encounter along their trip and while being detained. She takes pleasure in helping them get on the road to wellness.

"People keep saying I'm doing too much, I'm going to wear myself out, but the work gives me energy," she said. "I'm doing something valuable."

While the Samaritans have expanded its mission, Lemmon said it's not been a burden because people just naturally have been able to find their niche. People who can't hike in the desert anymore help out at the monastery.

When the immigrants arrive at the monastery, they are often empty-handed, having been told to throw away their belongings and they have no idea where they are  or why, Lemmon said. Once they find out they are surrounded by well-wishing volunteers, they are relieved.

There's no one ordering them around, telling them where to go, when to sleep and when to eat, Lemmon said. 

"Our jobs are to make them feel welcome and cared for," she said.

Every weekend, a national organization of nurses flies in to evaluate patients, Lemmon said. One day a nurse, who had helped out during Hurricane Katrina said she'd never seen a community come together as well as the Tucson-area had.

"I thought that was something," Lemmon said.

Cavendish, the director of operations for Catholic Community Services, said volunteer fatigue is a "fact of life" because they put in so many hours and hear such heart-wrenching stories, but they always seem to come back — without any convincing, either.

This week, they met a Honduran farmer who left his country with his son because he could no longer feed his family due to drought. Mexican authorities had blocked all of the normal routes to the U.S., so they climbed on top of a train, she said. Weak with hunger, he got dizzy, fell and was run over by the train. He lost an arm and a leg and is in danger of losing his other arm, Cavendish said.

"There’s nothing that I can say that’s as strong as what they’ve experienced here. So even for the folks who briefly feel overwhelmed by some of the tragedy, after that calms down they remember the hope, they remember the successes and they remember that every single one of these volunteers changes someone’s life when they’re here and multiple someone’s lives, at times," Cavendish said. "It’s powerful."

The new owner of the monastery plans to build apartments on the site and the shelter has to move by July 31.

Cavendish hopes they'll find a new location without having to split up the organization. Nothing will replace the monastery, but there are options out there and, clearly, the need is going to remain for the foreseeable future.

"The wall’s not going to solve anything. When people are fleeing for truly desperate situations, and they’re really coming to protect their families, there isn’t a wall or a policy that is going to change that," she said.

Kim Smith | 520-547-9740

Assistant Editor Kim Smith moved to Arizona from Michigan when she was 16. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in journalism in 1989. She has worked at seven newspapers of varying size in Arizona, Texas and Nevada.

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