TACOMA – When immigrants are released from the Northwest Detention Center, they find themselves on an unfamiliar street in a busy industrial area. They may speak little or no English, and have no way to connect with friends or family.
So the AIDNW motorhome parked nearby is a welcome sight. Stepping through the door of the 1998 RV, immigrants find trained volunteers — some of them from St. Leo Parish in Tacoma — offering snacks, clothing, backpacks, transportation and help getting in touch with family members.
“It’s a gift to meet people from all parts of the world, to hear their stories and learn about their strength, resolve and what they’ve sacrificed to begin a new life somewhere else,” said volunteer Stephanie Ostmann, a St. Leo parishioner.
AIDNW was founded in 2005 by a coalition of faith communities (including St. Leo’s), social service agencies and concerned individuals. In addition to visiting immigrants in detention and providing transitional support when they’re released, the group raises awareness of immigration issues, according to its website.
In 2015, a grant from the Archdiocese of Seattle’s Missions Office kicked off a fundraising campaign to buy the RV, which was blessed by Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, according to J.L. Drouhard, who just retired as Missions director.
But mechanical problems and mounting maintenance bills mean the RV needs to be replaced, explained Martha Scoville, another volunteer from St. Leo’s.
“When we had an unexpected $9,000 repair bill [in early 2018], I decided to focus on fundraising,” said Scoville, who wrote grants for the replacement effort.
In June, AIDNW announced it had exceeded its $80,000 fundraising goal. “We never got turned down once,” Scoville said.
Donations included more than $4,000 raised at a May 2018 Mass celebrated outside the detention center, sponsored by St. Leo’s and St. Joseph Parish in Seattle, Drouhard said.
Since last August, other donations and grants have come from religious entities, individuals and foundations, he added.
Scoville said AIDNW hopes to have the new RV customized for the ministry (including more storage space and a larger seating area) and ready to go by fall.
At the AIDNW motorhome, volunteers provide a warm welcome and assistance to immigrants newly released from the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Photo: Courtesy AIDNW
A concrete way to live the gospel
Volunteers staff the RV from 2-7 p.m. every Monday through Friday. In May, the center served 162 people from 26 countries, including Cuba, India, Mexico, Guatemala and Cameroon, according to the monthly log kept by RV volunteers.
Every year, the archdiocese has provided small grants through the Catholic Relief Services Rice Bowl program to help buy food for released immigrants assisted at the RV (as well as AIDNW hospitality houses), Drouhard said.
Ostmann, part of a 10-member St. Leo’s team that volunteers at the center twice a month, recalled meeting a woman from Cameroon so desperate to flee her country that she flew to South America and then began the long journey north on foot.
The woman described walking through jungles where makeshift trails were marked by plastic bags hanging on tree branches. She also told of crossing rivers and living in fear of snakes and wild animals. Eventually, she reached the U.S. border, presented herself for asylum, and was sent to the Northwest Detention Center.
“She was incredibly creative and resilient, and yet positive and upbeat,” Ostmann said.
With all the discouraging news in the world, Ostmann said, volunteering at the welcome center “feels positive, [doing] one little thing to help them take the next step … to greet them in a welcoming fashion so they know there are people here who care about them.”
The welcome center, Drouhard said, “is a concrete way of living out the joy of the gospel. It’s an opportunity for people to encounter their neighbor who has experienced trauma, to provide welcome, some food, a pathway to a new life,” he added. “You can’t help but feel good about being part of that.”
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