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When dozens of unaccompanied migrant youths first entered an emergency shelter at Freeman Coliseum in late March, hundreds of people stepped up to help supervise and care for the teenage boys.

One of those volunteers is a woman from Cincinnati who arrived in San Antonio in mid-April to live out her beliefs, lending a hand to watch over the 1,802 youths now residing at the shelter, which became a source of controversy after Gov. Greg Abbott directed the Texas Rangers and Department of Public Safety to begin an investigation into claims of abuse and neglect occurring at the facility.

Sister Alice Gerdeman is a member of a Catholic order for women known as the Congregation of Divine Providence (CDP) in Kentucky. She is also one of hundreds like her who belong to the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which recently called upon its members to volunteer in emergency shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border when the migrant crisis began. 

But to the boys she supervises in the shelter, she is simply “señora.”

“They don’t, most of them, understand religious life,” Gerdeman said.
“They do know that I’m somebody who cares and that I’m somebody who prays.”

Gerdeman spoke with the San Antonio Report this week prior to her shift as a volunteer at the coliseum where she said many of the boys look upon her as a patient and kind grandmother. 

One of the shelter residents recently wrote his name on a piece of paper so she could place it in her Bible – so she wouldn’t forget to pray for him, Gerdeman said. “I’ve been very touched by some of the children who clearly needed a grandma.”

Gerdeman would not comment directly on Abbott’s allegations of abuse and neglect and subsequent investigation. But on Monday, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff did. “Completely false,” he said. Wolff has been briefed on the investigation by the federal agency overseeing the facility, according to a county spokesperson.

Gerdeman works every day at Freeman in a shift that lasts from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., mostly supervising the boys, ages 13-17, who are divided into groups. No two shifts are the same, however, as each day “has its own little adventures,” she said.

Bexar County has an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“Probably the biggest problem is boredom – you have young people, teenagers, who are waiting and hopeful, and all of them are people who have gone through something that I can’t even imagine what it is,” Gerdeman said. 

Their basic needs for food and shelter and some recreation are being met, she said. The teens receive some basic English instruction and like to practice what they learn on Gerdeman. 

She said she focuses more on the boys reaching their destination safely than on the policies or politics surrounding the current immigration crisis.

“I would love it if today when I go in, they would be able to say every one of these young peoples’ families or friends are going to be accepting them within the next couple of days – that would give joy to my heart,” she said. But she understands that takes time.  

Gerdeman joined her congregation 56 years ago, professing vows to a religious community founded on the tradition of serving the unmet needs of others, especially young people, she said. 

“And clearly there is a great need for people to work with young people, here in Texas and other places in the United States, who are immigrants or refugees, young people or children,” she said. 

Gerdeman, who serves in a leadership role in her community, signed up for the mission after Catholic Charities USA reached out to the LCWR for volunteers. She is one of hundreds of volunteers supporting the shelter through the Archdiocese of San Antonio’s Catholic Charities.

In 2019, she worked for several months at the La Posada Providencia shelter for migrant families in the Rio Grande Valley town of San Benito where she drove people to the airport and bus station, played with the children, taught English, and baked bread. “I put together a butterfly garden to make a home for the immigrants,” she said. 

But last year the COVID-19 pandemic left her with extra time on her hands that she’s been filling with what she called “freelance” justice and peace causes, including work to eliminate the death penalty in Ohio. 

“Since I have a flexible schedule, and a very big interest in immigration, it was a natural for me to come,” Gerdeman said. 

With limited Spanish language experience, she can’t do much to reassure the children at the Freeman shelter, who are mostly from Central America. But “the kids are wonderful,” Gerdeman said. “And they are just encouraged to wait, and to be hopeful, and to help each other out.”

She has yet to personally witness one of the migrant minors being released to join family members or sponsors in the United States. Almost 200 boys have been placed with guardians since the shelter opened. But when word goes out that a release is about to happen, the boys clap and rejoice with one another, she said. 

Bexar County and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) signed an agreement to house up to 2,400 youths at the coliseum until May 30. Gerdeman, meanwhile, has been residing temporarily with the sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence at Our Lady of the Lake University.

In two weeks, she will return home to Cincinnati, where like much of the Midwest in general, she said many people fear the wave of undocumented migrants and don’t sympathize with their plight. She wants to change that notion. 

“I want to tell them that that’s not my experience at all, and I’ll also tell them about the generosity of the spirit of the people of Texas,” Gerdeman said. “I’ve just been so impressed with the other folks who have been working. [They] really have the goodwill and the well-being of these young people in their hearts.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.