Last month I dropped people off at the Tucson airport 12 times.
I volunteer for The Inn of Southern Arizona. We provide food, clothing and shelter for documented migrants traveling from the southern US border to the homes of sponsors elsewhere in the US. I've served on the board for the last year.
Before covid, my husband Art and I volunteered every Saturday night at the shelter. It was then located in the basement of a Methodist church in Tucson. Cots were set up for families, and meals were prepared and served in the church kitchen. When families received bus tickets from their sponsors, they were taken to the Greyhound bus station for their onward journeys.
More than a year later, we reopened - this time in a motel just off Interstate 10. For the sake of safety, families were housed in individual rooms, and volunteers knocked on the door to deliver meals. Everyone wore masks and observed social distancing. All our guests had tested negative for covid; those migrants testing positive were housed at another shelter until their tests were negative.
Now, most of our guests fly from the Tucson International airport to the cities of their sponsors.
I haven't volunteered on site much this year because it's hard to be on my feet for the four-hour shift; I'm still recovering from my hip replacement last summer. But I offered to be an airport driver. I'll get a text from Elsa, coordinator of the drivers. "We've got a family of three leaving at 3:30 p.m. Can you take them to the airport, help get their boarding passes, go through security with them, and take them to their gate?"
I've learned that if I'm going through the airport with families, it will take two hours and 55 minutes from the time I leave my house until the time I get home: 35 minutes to the motel to pick up the family, 20 minutes to the airport, an hour and a half from the parking lot to the ticket counter to security to the gate to the family boarding the plane, 30 minutes back to the parking lot and then back to my house. So if I have an afternoon free I can say yes.
My Spanish is pretty limited, so I have Google Translate on my phone. I've recorded a few messages: "I will take you to the ticket counter and help with your boarding passes" and "I will take you through security" and "I will stay with you until you get on the airplane." I show them the message in Spanish on my phone and they nod. Or I read them the message in my not-too-terrible Spanish.
At the ticket counter there is usually an agent who speaks Spanish. I get a gate pass there. At the TSA checkpoint there is always a Spanish speaker, who looks at the family's documents and takes their picture. They look at my driver's license and take my picture. We go through security. I take off my shoes and say, "No zapatos". We go to the gate and wait. Sometimes one of the family speaks a little English and we have a simple conversation. Sometimes we use body language to communicate. When the family's boarding row is called, the adults usually give me a hug and thank me, like I am the one responsible for their upcoming new life. Sometimes they cry. When they're about to board the plane, they look back at me and wave, and I wave back.
I have taken families to the airport who are from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti and Brazil. The young woman in the Brazilian family talked to me via Google Translate Portuguese. Her mother died nine years ago. The family had to leave the rest of their family behind in Brazil. She cried as she told me the story. I said, "I don't understand all of your words, but I understand your heart." I put my hand over my own heart and she nodded. Her name was Priscilla and she wanted my phone number so she could text me to tell me they had arrived safely. I got a text from her yesterday, with a photo her husband had taken of us.
Volunteer driver coordinator Elsa may also say, "We've got two families leaving at 11:45 a.m. We have another volunteer who will take both families through the airport, but the volunteer doesn't have enough room for everyone in their car. Can you take the second family and drop them off at the airport to meet up with the other volunteer?"
I know this will take me an hour and 15 minutes, so it's usually an easy "yes".
I love this volunteer work. It makes a difference to a single person or to a family. It is easy for me. I get more than I give.
"Todos somos iguales." We are all the same.