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COVID-19: Now more than ever, we need you in this fight.

A Spirit of Welcome: Volunteering at the Northwest Detention Center RV

Earlier this year, before COVID-19 transformed the ways in which we work and travel, I had the privilege of visiting World Relief’s office in Seattle. The energy in the Seattle office is incredible. English classes, job coaching, meetings with newly arrived families, immigration legal services — the list goes on.

One of the most meaningful parts of my trip was visiting the Northwest Detention Center. In an industrial area outside of downtown Tacoma sits a nondescript cinderblock building that houses thousands of detainees from countries around the world.

Recognizing the incredible stress and anxiety that detainees often experience, World Relief’s Detention Center ministry staff offers spiritual support to those who have been detained. And thankfully, World Relief’s support and care isn’t just limited to those inside the detention center.

In an RV parked outside the detention center gates, World Relief offers released detainees some much-needed hospitality through a Welcome Center run by our partner, AID Northwest. Last year, 274 men and women were welcomed and cared for in the RV Welcome Center by volunteers like Amanda Carlson.

I recently had the chance to talk with Amanda about her experience as an RV Welcome Center volunteer.

Hi, Amanda! How did you first hear about World Relief’s Detention Center ministry and how long have you been volunteering?

I’ve been volunteering for a year-and-a-half and I serve once a month. I had heard of World Relief, but decided to get more involved after learning about the new administration’s rules limiting immigration. I went to a meeting and heard Scott Arbeiter (World Relief’s President) speak and then, Stephanie (World Relief’s Post-Release Coordinator for the Detention Center) came and talked to my church, Urban Grace in downtown Tacoma, about the needs of detainees. It turned out that she had an office right here in our church building, so I signed up for the volunteer training.

Tell me a little bit more about what the Detention Center is and why we have an RV parked outside of it.

The Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma is one of the largest immigration detention centers in the nation. People are detained for a number of reasons — not having the right paperwork, illegally crossing the border, or legally claiming asylum and being detained while their court cases are processed. Some people are there for a short time and many are there for quite a long time.

When people are released, there is nothing there for them. It’s a long walk to the bus station or to get someplace where you could make a phone call or charge your phone. The RV is there to meet them as soon as they walk out of the detention center gates. We give newly released detainees a chance to catch their breath and figure out their next steps.

It’s always really fun to welcome people to the United States. We provide backpacks for everyone because most people come out with a hodgepodge of belongings and lots of paperwork. We offer them snacks and drinks, give them toiletries and have phones and iPads to help people contact relatives or make travel arrangements. There’s also a big collection of clothing that people can go through. Some people come out in the Detention Center uniform of gray sweatpants. Some people come out wearing what they were detained in, so if they were detained in the summer they might be wearing shorts but now it’s the dead of winter and they need warmer clothes. People are so happy to go pick out some new things for themselves. We want to do everything we can to try and facilitate a smooth transition for someone who has just been released.

How has volunteering at the RV shifted your perspective on immigration or impacted your faith?

I was so surprised at how many nationalities are represented in the Detention Center. I ignorantly thought that most people would be from Mexico or from Latin America, but there are literally people from all over the world. More importantly, I have never met people who seem so rootless. People seeking asylum often have no support and no connection. They either had everything taken from them because of violence and conflict in their home countries or they had to leave it all behind.

They’ve left their family, children, everything — in search of safety and a better life. All they have is this little stack of papers that they have been released with and then what we are providing them and that is it. I have so many roots here in the U.S.– family, a modest savings account, a home and citizenship in a powerful country that will protect me. I often take these things for granted, but these people have none of it at that moment. While they are incredibly independent people because they have gone through this huge thing on their own, they’re also incredibly dependent on the goodwill of others to help them rebuild their lives.

Are there any memorable stories that you would like to share?

The story that comes to mind is one of a young woman who was from Cameroon. She had been at the RV for a few hours and I ended up taking her to the airport. She shared that she was impatient to get on a plane. I learned that she was flying to reconnect with her husband and her one-year-old twin babies that she had been separated from for four months. She was heading to Denver, so I pulled up some pictures of Denver on my phone and showed them to her, and she just cried. She was so excited to get there and build a new life with her family.

How has COVID-19 impacted the RV welcome center?

Unfortunately, all visitation and church services inside the detention center have stopped. The RV is still functioning, but it’s all happening in a tarped tent outside the RV so we can maintain appropriate social distancing. Everything has been loaded into tubs that can be moved outside. Thankfully it isn’t winter anymore so it’s been okay so far.

What is something that you know now that you didn’t know before you started serving at the RV Welcome Center?

That God’s love is alive and well, functioning and serving outside of the traditional Christian box. World Relief is right in the middle of an issue that can be so politically controversial in the Christian community, but as I have expanded my faith and walked into different communities, I’ve loved discovering how vibrant God’s love is in communities that I was previously unaware of. And I’m very thankful that World Relief is willing to be a part of it. Maybe in the fringes where it’s messier and controversial is where God’s love is the most evident.

What would you say to someone who is wanting to get involved with World Relief or serve in some way but is maybe hesitant?

There are so many ways you can get involved. With my lifestyle and family, I can only volunteer one day a month. It’s so minimal but has impacted me so much. I’ve learned a ton, I talk to people about my experiences, I bring people with me to shadow. You can send letters to people in the Detention Center and when the virus calms down you can go visit. It is a real one-on-one, person-to-person way to serve a really vulnerable community. A lot of times with volunteering, you can’t actually get so close to the people you want to help. But the detention center ministry lets you get close so it’s a really amazing way to try to help a little bit.

As we celebrate Volunteer Appreciation Week, we are so thankful for amazing people like Amanda who partner with us to bring God’s love to vulnerable and marginalized people around the world.

Mary Milano serves as the Director of Fundraising Content at World Relief.

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