United Way builds volunteer capacity for migrant hospitality centers

When the migrant hospitality centers providing support to asylum seekers in El Paso began seeing a dramatic increase a few weeks ago, college student Janet Gutierrez knew she needed to commit her spare time to volunteering.      

“What motivated me to volunteer is the opportunity to be able to help others and make a difference for a group of people or even one person,” said Gutierrez. “Knowing that my work is valued and seeing the positive impact on the lives of others is very fulfilling.” 

Gutierrez is one of the many new United Way of El Paso County volunteer recruits serving at hospitality centers serving migrants crossing the El Paso, TX border region. In early March, the United Way was asked by county and city governments to build the volunteer capacity of the community’s migrant hospitality services. More specifically, recruit and retain long-term and on-call volunteers for shelters at faith-based organizations, which have become the top local service providers in El Paso for that population. United Way’s efforts to date, including incorporating its online portal VolunteerElPaso.org for registration, has garnered more than 140 passionate volunteers for centers.  

“Our community is best known for coming together and supporting one another,” said Deborah A. Zuloaga, President and CEO of United Way of El Paso County. “Our United Way is just harnessing that power to engage a greater group of people who can reinforce the work of organizations already serving these migrants. The work we hope to accomplish centers around streamlining a volunteer process that builds sustainability.”

Since early June, Gutierrez began working weekly 6-hour shifts at Tobin Park Refugee Shelter, a faith-based hospitality center primarily sponsored by Grace Presbyterian Church. Though Tobin Park has been offering migrant services since 2014, it recently became a consistent community partner in supporting the reunification of families and hosting asylum seekers in June 2018. 

Between October 2018 and May 2019, the U.S. Border Patrol is said to have apprehended nearly 600,000 migrants in the Southwest border with apprehensions in the El Paso sector totaling more than 135,000. But in May, the flow of migrants to the border region increased by 34 percent compared to April. Most recently on the week of May 6, about 6,600 migrants – double the usual weekly rate – had been released to El Paso nonprofits serving asylum seekers. 

As the numbers of migrants grow so does the need for volunteers at about 20 hospitality centers in El Paso. At Tobin Park, its leadership welcomed the idea of expanding operating hours but needed more volunteers to help. The shelter currently accommodates up to 90 asylum seekers who are received every Thursday and hosted through Saturday. United Way is now working to add sufficient volunteers to its roster to consider operations on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  

Once asylum seekers are released from detention and transferred to a hospitality center such as Tobin Park, they are legally allowed to be in and travel within the United States. The families who are received typically arrive hungry, unwashed, and with strong coughs. 

Volunteers at the shelter are critical in preparing the facility for hosting these individuals for 2-3 days before they travel to their sponsors. Migrant services include checking in and out migrants to the center; preparing and serving meals; organizing all in-kind donations of clothes, toiletries, food and more; arranging travel with sponsors; cleaning resting and sleeping areas; and driving families and individuals to the bus station and the airport. 

At Tobin and across the El Paso area, caring collaborative teams comprised of these passionate volunteers drive the successful operations and offer a welcoming environment for the families. Community leaders and residents agree that the sustainability of these hospitality efforts in El Paso community relies on volunteers. 

“Volunteering is important because everyone needs help at some point.” Gutierrez said. “It brings people closer to one another, builds trust and it restores hope and faith.”