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‘Closet Lady’ Serves Asylum Seekers at Loretto’s Former Nazareth Center in El Paso

Posted on November 30, 2018, by Claudia Calzetta SL

‘Closet Lady’ Claudia Calzetta SL

When I read the November announcement from Loretto President Pearl McGivney that there was an urgent need for volunteers in El Paso, Texas, I decided to respond and make myself available. Why not? I was retired, liked to travel and was willing to “do whatever” to help. The specific call was to assist at one of the Annunciation House hospitality centers.

My service was at Nazareth House, our former Loretto nursing facility. Today, Nazareth Center is one of the busy shelters for asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. A description from the Annunciation House website states that Nazareth House started in 2014, and houses very short-term guests that have just been released from ICE custody. Nazareth guests typically stay just one to three days, long enough to address their basic needs and connect with family or friends elsewhere in the United States. This house has high turnover and unpredictable numbers, with the guest population entirely dependent on ICE’s release schedule each week.

My first day of work I arrived at 7 a.m. and found work in a room about the size of a large bedroom with wall-to-wall shelves used for storing donations: hundreds and hundreds of pants, shirts, sweaters, socks, shoes for adults, children and babies. In the corner of this room were bags and bags of large unopened donations stacked up waiting to be unpacked. Not knowing any Spanish I thought “I can do this job,” sort clothes and put them on shelves. Little did I know that each day usually between 50 to 75 asylum seekers are literally dropped off in late afternoon. After seekers have a clean shower, and a hot supper everyone is given the chance to go to the clothes room for “new” clothing.

In addition to the evening distribution of clothes, each day when seekers leave for travel to meet up with relatives, there is sometimes a scramble for jackets and coats for those who travel to states in colder climates. There wasn’t much time to sort all this clothing between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. I decided I needed a system and some helpers to get this room ready for new seekers every day. And then four beautiful women generously “volunteered” to help me, and from that time on I was known as the “closet lady” in charge of organizing everything.

Many donations are medium, large/extra large, long/extra long size or “grande, grande” as the women would say, and not appropriate for most asylum seekers who come from countries where the average size if 5 ft and smaller. So it was a challenge to find suitable clothing. I felt sadness many times during the week when I couldn’t locate clothing or shoes that fit. But somehow, some way we almost always found something that day or the next for everyone. Improvise was the word of the week. So, specifically, what are the things that touched me, and why do I believe this was a life-changing event for me? It was directly related to:

— the smiles of the asylum seekers when they walked through the doors to Nazareth Center after being dropped off by ICE at Nazareth — the many efforts to communicate how happy and thankful they were even after long journeys … their tired, relieved faces when all the volunteers welcomed them with smiles, hugs, outstretched hands and arms …

— the four industrious and generous women seekers who helped at different times during the week to organize the clothing shelves — folding, separating and setting up a system for everyone to find clothes that would fit. I could never have done it without them …

— “M” — who came in looking for clothes for herself and young baby … a beautiful gentle woman in her 30s who eventually broke down and cried because she was separated from her husband other children. The fear that was visible in her uncontrollable sobbing that she would never see them again, her overwhelming sorrow, fright … her vulnerability …

— the dreadful, painful ankle ‘bracelets’ on swollen legs — women crying, volunteers trying to soothe; the humiliation most feel at having to wear these cumbersome and inhuman monitors. The term ankle bracelet takes on a new meaning for me. It is not a piece of jewelry …

— the fear, the anxiety, the longing for security, the tears yet the the tangible hope that was inexplicably present in all of the seekers for a better life … for themselves and for their children. The courage, simplicity and humility of a gracious people willing to believe in the goodness of others …

— the children who just wanted to be children and play games of hide and seek, oblivious to what the future would be for them … who sorted through clothes with their moms/dads, looking for something that would fit them …

— the anxiety of those getting ready to leave by buses, planes to places unknown — holding tight to their bags of snacks, blankets, food and clothing for their journeys, the sincere request for prayers and blessings. The constant “gracias, gracias, gracias” to volunteers for food, clean beds, showers, clothes …

— the dedication of the many volunteers who came each day working eight to 12 hours driving seekers to buses, the airport, making food/travel bags, translating and facilitating phone calls to family members. The volunteer system at Nazareth Center that organized three hot meals each day to feed the seekers …

— the consistent dedication of the people of El Paso for their continued support of Annunciation House and Nazareth Center and all the shelters in this city …

I had no idea what a life-changing experience this week would be for me — a 75-year-old former educator/administrator who did not know a lick of Spanish and who had zero experience working with such vulnerable, lovely and scared people. I wasn’t prepared for the reality of what I would encounter in just nine days; the fear that asylum seekers have not knowing where they are they going; the fear they have of the unknown judge who will hear their case; the fear for their children’s safety and ultimately the fear of being sent back to countries where they fear torture and death. But amidst all of this, I also saw and sensed the hope, the willingness to believe in our country where they wanted to work, raise their families and have a chance for freedom. How many times I heard sweet and sincere ‘‘gracias,” felt energetic hugs when I could find clothes that could fit. I became part of something so genuine, and experienced the reality of everyone joining hearts and hands across cultures and lands.

On my first day at Nazareth, one of the volunteers told me if I wanted to see the face of God and the suffering Jesus, this was the place to be. How right she was. None of this was theoretically anymore. I saw the faces, the humanity of those who previously I only saw on TV or in newspapers. And 10 days later when I left El Paso, I knew that I had changed. I made a commitment to myself to continue to try and do everything that I can from where I am to advocate and help these beautiful, sincere, and suffering people. I want to be changed, to be more thoughtful, caring and appreciative and to never forget the faces, the sweet smiles, the hugs and even the tears. Strangers, impacting strangers in ways I never imagined could happen. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Loretto offered to our members to assist in El Paso. I was able to witness to the courage, stamina, gentleness and love that was present at Nazareth Center. I did see the face of God each and every day. I received much more than I gave as “closet lady” and I will never be the same.

Lastly, I am so thankful for Reuben Garcia, founder and director of Annunciation House in El Paso who has provided shelter and other assistance to desperate migrants and refugees for the past 40 years. May his good example be the impetus for many others to reach out and help. For more information, go to annunciationhouse.org.


Claudia Calzetta SL

Claudia (she/her) is a Sister of Loretto and has spent many years in varied forms of education — teacher, administrator and campus minister at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. She also spent six years as the Loretto Volunteer part-time coordinator in St. Louis. Claudia retired for approximately one year and recently has returned to this position. She loves gardening, traveling and baking French tarts and pies. She raises funds for Annunciation House in El Paso by selling her delicious desserts. Contact Claudia for more info.
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