Shamokin native discusses United Methodist Home's plan to take in Central American children
In her three decades working at the United Methodist Home for Children, Brenda Loyd says seldom has she seen such outpouring of compassion as the one currently being directed at the home's prospective new residents.
The Mechanicsburg-based children's residential care organization will in mid-August welcome 16 of the as many as 59,000 children who have fled their Central American homes and arrived at the U.S. border in Texas. The home answered a call from the federal government, which is seeking
to house the children in temporary housing while they await their hearings with immigration officials.
In preparing for their arrival, Loyd, the executive director, will hire approximately 25 new full-time staff members and four part-time ones.
"The folks we are talking to seem to be very highly motivated and very concerned from their hearts," Loyd said July 22. "That's gratifying ... to know there are many people out there who are supportive. They may not agree with the politics of the situation, but they are able to get past that and realize these are kids and kids who have needs and respond to that appropriately."
The plight of these children - the majority fleeing oppressive violence in their countries - have stirred controversy across the United States, with scores of residents across communities protesting the idea that the federal government has taken the children into custody, rather than send them back to their countries, and now prepares to process them in the immigration system.
The majority of the children come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Across communities, residents have protested that the children will be financial burdens on their communities and schools; others worry that the children carry infectious diseases.
Loyd said the home, which maintains a covenant with the United Methodist Church, simply had to offer to help. The organization, she said, learned of the opportunity through a trade association, and was not contacted directly by the federal government.
"Our mission is to care and serve youth in need," she said. "That's foremost in my mind in terms of why we are doing this. In terms of all the rest, I'm rather neutral. It exists. We need to deal with the various viewpoints, but these kids need help and we are called to help them as part of our mission."
The children bound for the Mechanicsburg organization are between the ages of 13 and 17. The facility will be able to provide them each with a private bedroom.
While affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the organization maintains its independence, and is a private, non-profit 501C3.
"They take the social concerns of people very seriously and they are very responsive to the social needs of folks," Loyd said of the denomination. "We support the beliefs and social ministry components of the church. That's our identity .. that's how we were born. We choose not to lose that."
The home, which was founded in 1917 in Mechanicsburg as an orphanage, over the decades modified its program to a treatment-focused one. It currently serves 31 children who live on-site in the residential cottages. It has the capacity to serve 38 children. The children are referred to the program primarily by the courts, including a few through juvenile probation authorities.
The home served out its mission in a similar manner during the Vietnam War when it took in refugee children from Vietnam, all of whom were eventually integrated into the community.
Loyd said she wasn't certain that would happen in this case. The home has been contracted out to provide emergency shelter for 30 to 45 days.
"When you hear some of the stories about some of the things these young people have gone through, for us it compels us to provide a sanctuary," she said. "If we can provide a safe place for them to regroup, with a lot of support, they can figure out what's the next step."
Across Pennsylvania, a handful of organizations have announced they will provide shelter for the children or have already begun to house them.
Bethany Children's Home in Berks County has since June housed 32 children.
In Lancaster, Pressley Ridge, which runs a foster care service and residential placement for children, was briefed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the need for temporary housing, according to Lancaster Online. The organization has no plans at the moment to participate, according to the news report.
At the moment, the Harrisburg Catholic Diocese has no plans to provide shelter for the children. Locally Catholic Charities runs an Office of Immigration & Refugee Services, which deals with people who are declared refugees by the United Nations and have been in refugee camps. The U.S. Conference of Bishops runs an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program, but the diocese is not connected to that program.
Under current law, children received at the U.S. border must be within 72 hours must handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services officials, specifically in this case, the Office of Refugee Settlement.
Loyd was scheduled this week to attend a training in Washington in preparation for the children's arrival.
In the meantime, she continues to interview prospective employees, including teachers and teachers aide. The organization has been instructed to provide the children with an on-site education program. Loyd said she did not think the children would be placed in local schools.
Loyd said the cost of the program will be covered through a grant process with the federal government. In addition to fixed costs allocated in the grant, for example for food, the home will calculate per-child costs.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion in emergency funding to address the influx of children. Nearly half of the money will go to the Department of Health and Human Services to provide care and shelter.
Loyd is aware of the sentiments in some communities expressing disapproval of the federal government's handling of the situation, and at times disdain for the children.
"I think we are prepared as best we can be," she said. "We hope for the best. We hope people understand these are kids who have significant needs and we are trying to help them with their needs. They are here and until a decision can be arrived at, they need to be cared for and they need to be at a safe place, and that's what we are."
The two groups of children - the current residents and the ones arriving in August - will not interact, but will be kept separately, Loyd said.