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The Children of Casa Juan Diego in Houston

Artist: L. V. Díaz

As we prepare for Christmas, I find myself rejoicing at all the new babies and children that have found refuge at Casa Juan Diego. At times, we have relatively few children, but then immigration authorities will deliver so many that we have almost more than we can handle. Because the work of our house is 24/7 and people arrive around the clock, new families are always arriving, new pregnant women and new children are in constant motion around the common living areas, and it takes a little time to figure out which child belongs to which mother, or sibling, or father.

It is important for us to get to know the children and their needs as soon as possible. Mostly they are resilient and content, soaking up the new world around them, despite the hardships they encounter during their journey to reach our border. Others, however, need immediate attention.

Just this week, we received from the border a toddler needing oxygen, a child far below their appropriate weight and height, two children with active infections, and one that we took immediately to the emergency room. Gratefully, Marie, one of our full time Catholic Workers, is a nurse! She had a busy week arranging the needed medical care for each child, while other Catholic Workers and volunteers supported the child’s parents and siblings in their interactions with a medical system that they do not understand.

Always there are the everyday health care needs of our children: improving their nutrition, providing opportunities for therapeutic play, receiving their immunizations. Even if a child isn’t going to be staying in our area for school, we do the time-consuming work of making certain that their immunizations are up to date.

Even the children who were starving in their home countries and are recovering from a two-thousand-mile journey on foot are strong in spirit; they must be to survive. As the motivating force and the hope of their parents, they seem to understand their sacrifice and how much it means for the future of their family. Many of them come and go rather quickly from Casa Juan Diego to the next step in their journey, taking with them like a backpack the memory of our attention and care. Others we will know and help to support for many years. The older ones will remember this place of solidarity as the first place that their caregiver felt safe and rested, a place where they could play and sleep in safety and imagine a future of possibility and hope.

For many of these children, our care for them started before their birth. Most of our pregnant mothers had no prenatal care before they arrived here. We are proud of the fact that in the 40 years of receiving women with the highest of high-risk pregnancies— arriving at Casa Juan Diego with not only no prenatal care, but also from a journey filled with the constant threat of violence, rape or torture, hunger and thirst while walking for weeks and months through extremely dangerous areas and terrains— we have never lost a mother or a baby in childbirth. Our babies and new mothers need extra care before and after delivery, and as a community, this is exactly what they get.

A pregnant mother gets needed medical visits, transportation to that visit, and help to interpret results. A new mother instantly has extra hands (including other guests in the house) for the care of her new baby and for herself. While recovering and bonding with her baby, she has no worries about shelter or food, diapers, clothes, or supplies, as it should be for all new mothers. We help to care for siblings, wash clothes and linen, bring food to her room, hold the baby so she can sleep or rest, manage the transportation and support for all post-delivery appointments, and watch for post-partum complications and depression. Her physical and emotional load is shared with our whole community. It takes a community to raise a child, and we do our best to provide that community.

Over the years, we have cultivated relationships with many outside organizations to ensure this high level of care. For example, Ben Taub Hospital has worked with us for years. They respond immediately when we bring a pregnant woman in, knowing already the critical need to assess and prepare, to catch up on the care needed to ensure a healthy and safe delivery.  This high level of health care, coupled with community and social support helps us to beat the odds for a safe and healthy mother and child, every time.

Sometimes I think about all the children that have passed through Casa Juan Diego, from infants to teenagers, as our greatest achievement. They were cared for and supported at the very beginning of their stay in a new and foreign land or during a major family crisis. Some of them needed our interventions with special services or care, but all of them needed the safety and warmth that our modern-day “manger” provides. In this Christmas season, I cannot help thinking of Mary, the mother of God, fleeing her home and desperately looking for a safe place to give birth. There was no room at the inn for her, but thanks to those who have so generously helped and supported us through the years, Casa Juan Diego finds room.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, October-December 2023.