Caminantes program comes to the aid of unaccompanied minors

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff – August 17, 2017

ORLANDO | Like so many other young people across the United States, the students in the ¡Adelante Caminantes! program at the Hope CommUnity Center have been preparing for the end of summer and the return to school. For these students however, not only will the new subject matter be unfamiliar to them, but the language, the culture, and the people surrounding them will be as well. These students are unaccompanied minors, or children between the ages of 8-19 who have fled their homes, and their families, in Central America to seek safety in the United States.

Eli García, program director explained, “These kids traveled a long journey. They jump the train. They travel the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Then they cross another border to here because they are trying to save their lives. You can see how hard it is to leave their families over there who are also in danger. These students have gone through so much and they’re just kids. They’re looking to live, to just survive.”

Adelante Caminantes means “Onward, Walkers” and the program was thus named to focus on the future that lies ahead for these children, while working on healing their past. Many of the 130 youth registered in the program come from Guatemala, but also from Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. García said the caminantes are trying to escape “the government, violence, and threats they receive from people who are trying to recruit them for gangs and also the extreme poverty there.” She added, “Their journey hasn’t been easy and it’s been a struggle for them to arrive here and find someone who can accept them and provide for them once they’re here.”

The children may attend public school, but most are performing below grade level or, at the very least, struggling to learn English. Every Monday and Wednesday night during the school year, program tutors assist an average of 40 caminantes with general studies, English, a hot meal, and basic life skills instruction. There is also one counselor on staff to help students suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. García said this is where the students gain confidence.

“It helps them to be here because it makes them feel they’re not alone. They’re not the only ones running away from violence in their countries. They enjoy being here and they can talk to someone who’s been through a similar situation. It’s not only classes, but it’s also a healing process where they can come and see other students who have gone through the same situation,” said Garcia.

When the students enter the U.S. they are automatically placed in a foster home and assigned a social worker to see if there is a family member here who can accept them and agree to look after them. With the help of pro-bono attorneys from Catholic Charities of Central Florida, they submit an application for asylum or apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).

García explained, “It is hard to get asylum because it’s hard to relive the trauma (by retelling their story).” She added, “And most cannot afford the cost of the process. It’s expensive; it’s hard; and it’s desperate for them. It’s an anxiety created in them because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

To help ease some of the stress of their transition, ¡Adelante Caminantes! is holding a back to school drive for their students. As Catholic social teaching calls the faithful to respond with hospitality to anyone who is forced to move to preserve their life or human dignity, the school supply drive offers an opportunity to put faith into action. For $35, school supplies can be purchased for these students in need. Donations can be scheduled to be dropped off with Teresa Young by calling 407-880-4673 or emailing tyoung@hcc-offm.org.