NMSU students bring skills to Las Cruces church to help asylum seekers
On a late afternoon in March, a young boy riding a toddler’s tricycle peddled across a narrow hallway in El Calvario Methodist Church in Las Cruces, zooming from one end to the other, past a small red-carpeted room, where Jennifer Patrick was busy checking the vital signs of a father and his young daughter who had traveled from Guatemala to seek asylum in the United States.
Patrick, a nursing student at New Mexico State University, assessed the soft-spoken man and child as they sat atop a bed, taking their body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate while reading off measurements to her instructor. A short time later, Patrick completed the evaluations and offered the father and daughter some advice before they left the make-shift triage room: “Bebe agua y come bien,” she said.
Meanwhile, in a room down the hall, Josie Schmidt, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in social work at NMSU, was working intently behind a laptop. Using online databases and resources, Schmidt mapped out social service programs in areas across the country that can assist asylum seekers once they leave the church to relocate with their sponsors or family members, who have agreed to house them while their asylum claims proceed in court.
“When we learn where their sponsor is, we find resources for them,” Schmidt explained. “I give them information on free and reduced-cost clinics for medical care and legal immigration help so that they have some information once they arrive at their sponsor’s location.”
Over the past year, El Calvario Methodist Church has served as one of the busiest transitional shelters in Southern New Mexico for people seeking asylum in the U.S. Each week, a growing number of mainly Central American families and individuals are housed at the church for 24 to 72 hours after being vetted by immigration authorities. The church, led by the Rev. George Miller, plays a critical role in preparing asylum seekers, who have been authorized to travel in the U.S., for journeys to their sponsors, offering beds, food, clothing and medical care.
Patrick and Schmidt were part of a group of NMSU students from the College of Health and Social Services’ School of Nursing and Department of Social Work who took their skills to the church this semester to help asylum seekers as part of collaborative, interprofessional clinical and field-practice experiences.
“I feel this is a big social justice issue and a human rights issue,” Schmidt said, explaining the issues fall within the national code of ethics for social workers. “People are coming to the U.S. because they are unsafe in their own countries,” she added, “and they have the right to come to the U.S. and request asylum. Asylum seekers need our help – and if I’m able to help, I should.”
The students’ instructors, Randee Greenwald, assistant professor of nursing, and Olga Cabada, college associate professor of social work, had volunteered at El Calvario in January, before the start of the spring 2019 semester, and made the decision soon after to offer their clinical and field-practice experiences at the church for students interested in assisting asylum seekers.
Once a week for eight weeks, the students met at the church on a day when new asylum seekers arrived and worked in pairs on tasks related to their fields of study for up to four hours.
For nursing students, their primary responsibility was to conduct triage examinations on new arrivals, checking their vital signs, and work in partnership with the on-site health care provider. For social work students, their work focused on locating social service programs and making travel arrangements for the church’s guests but also included assisting the nursing students in situations that required mental health intervention.
During one shift, Abigail Venegas, a social work student, helped a young child who was in distress. “I decided to create an activity with her to calm her down,” Venegas said, adding, “We try to see things from a wholistic perspective. We respond based on whatever the need.”
But no matter the case, the students strived to build trust from the beginning.
“Many of them come in feeling traumatized,” Cabada said of the asylum seekers. “They’ve had bad experiences in their journeys to get here.”
To put them at ease, the students would share a meal with them at the start of every shift.
“When we get there, we eat dinner with the asylum seekers and try to converse and gather stories,” nursing student Allie Pierce said. “Some of us can speak Spanish, and we’ve been able to learn about them, hear their stories and then give support.”
The shared meal also served as a time for students to carefully observe the families and individuals before examinations. “Sitting down to eat with them creates trust and gives students a chance to assess,” Greenwald said. “If we see a sick child or a withdrawn mother, we pay attention when we’re doing triage and report findings to providers or social workers.”
On that afternoon in March, Greenwald assisted Patrick in the church’s make-shift triage room, writing down each person’s body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen levels and other vital signs on a spreadsheet as Patrick took the measurements. By the end of the day, the two had screened about 15 people, including children, from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Greenwald said sore throats, dry coughs and cold symptoms are common among the many asylum seekers who have stayed at the downtown Las Cruces church over the past 12 months.
Before starting her shift, Greenwald chatted with Miller as he walked through the church. He said the church currently houses an average of 60 asylum seekers every week, a figure that has increased over the past year. He praised the NMSU students for their willingness to help.
“What the nursing students do is tremendous,” Miller said. “People come in sick all the time, including kids. But they come here, and they get triage. That’s important because you’ve seen some young children seeking asylum die in the area. Same with the social work students. They spot things we don’t spot, and they’re able to engage with the asylum seekers.”
For the students, the experience has been rewarding and educational.
“It’s been neat to see people of all ages. In the hospitals, we typically see older people,” Pierce said. “For me, it’s been a good experience to deal with infants and children, and see a different culture.”
Information from NMSU