This group of friends made an amazing cross-country relay to reunite a mom with her kids.

When more than 2,000 children were taken from their families at the border, Julie Schwietert Collazo found it increasingly difficult to sleep.

And as the spouse of a refugee, immigration issues were already intensely personal for her family.

One night, Schwietert Collazo was listening to the radio and heard an interview with the lawyer of a detained Guatemalan mother. Yeni Gonzalez had been separated from her three children at the border while seeking asylum.


Yeni Gonzalez speaks at a press conference. Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images.

"Something he said connected the dots for me about how some parents can be reunified with kids," says Schwietert Collazo. "He explained that Yeni was in a detention facility in Arizona and her kids were known to be in a center in NYC, and that, technically speaking, they could be reunified. She just needed to get to NYC."

Schwietert Collazo wondered what might happen if she tried to make reunification possible for this one family.

She, her husband, and some friends brainstormed and decided they wanted to try to raise bond for Gonzalez, get her to New York City, and support her until her case was heard.

Coordinating with Gonzalez's lawyer, the group immediately launched a GoFundMe, setting an arbitrary goal since they didn't yet know what Gonzalez's bond amount would be. The next morning, they learned it would be $7,500. They had already raised well beyond that overnight.

But money wasn't the only obstacle to helping bring Gonzalez and her children back together. Somehow, the group had to get her from Arizona to New York.

It wasn't as simple as planning a cross-country move. Gonzalez doesn't have a photo ID, so that eliminated the simplest and most obvious option of buying her a plane ticket. The next option — ground travel by Greyhound or Amtrak — could have put her in danger as a lone traveler. So the community got creative.

Schwietert Collazo and the group set up a rideshare relay, moving Gonzalez across the country in vehicles driven by volunteers and stopping in volunteer host homes along the way.

On July 2, Gonzalez arrived in NYC to see streets lined with supporters cheering for her. Accompanied by two elected officials and her lawyer the next day, Gonzalez visited with her children for the first time since their separation.

Gonzalez embraces Janey Pearl, one of the volunteers who helped drive her cross-country to NYC. Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images.

A nationwide injunction in June 2018 ordered all separated families to be reunited within a month. The logistics of that order, however, are proving to be nothing but pure chaos.

The injunction ordered all children under 5 to be reunified with their parents within 14 days and all older children to be reunited within 30 days. Even with the private funds and community help she received, Gonzalez's case will likely take longer than that.

For other families, the challenges of reunification are even more overwhelming.

For starters, kids — some of them preverbal — have been moved all over the country with little to no documentation that would be able to link them back to their parents. Additionally, immigration advocates and lawyers report that many parents are simply giving up their asylum claims out of desperation for reuniting with their children.

Some organizations, like the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center (MIRC) are stepping in to help clean up the mess surrounding separated families.

Previously, MIRC handled cases of "unaccompanied minors," defined as adolescents and teenagers who crossed the border alone. Now that very young children separated from their parents are included in that category, MIRC's work has grown more complicated.

Additionally, MIRC managing attorney Susan Reed says that most of the cases she sees unfortunately don't pertain to parents who are eligible for bond, like Gonzalez.

"It's relatively uncommon that people are getting bonds and being allowed to move forward with asylum claims," says Reed. That's because when Attorney General Jeff Sessions eliminated domestic violence and gang violence as grounds for asylum last month, he made it increasingly difficult for anyone to be granted asylum.

In addition, Reed says, prosecutors at the border are aggressive about trying to get people's paths to asylum cut off as quickly as possible.

"So far our clients who've been reunited have been reunited with parents who either have already been deported or are being deported," says Reed. "And even that hasn't been going that well."

As cases like Gonzalez's become less common, it's more important that individuals like Schwietert Collazo to step in and help with reunification where possible.

Getting Gonzalez closer to her children started with one person moving from compassion to action.

Gonzalez walks with members of the team that is helping her reunite with her kids, including Julie Schwietert Collazo, in back. Photo via Sen. Mike Gianaris/Twitter.

The most important thing, says Schwietert Collazo, is to trust the grassroots process.

"Each person who has shown up has been totally empowered to 'own' their part of the process and to be responsible for it," she says. "We haven't needed to lean on or involve any government representatives, and my experience is that when you trust your team, you can get things done more quickly." Her team's plan went from idea to full fruition in less than a week.

Schwietert Collazo hopes that her team's action plan can act as a model that others can use to support more detained parents reunite with their children.

In fact, on July 4, the group launched two more GoFundMe campaigns for two more moms, each one already approaching their $25,000 goal. Her efforts make it possible for others to contribute to the reunification effort by supporting her team or by starting a reunification project of their own in hopes that, eventually, all families separated at the border can be brought together again.

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On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

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Young people today are facing what seems to be greater exposure to complex issues like mental health, bullying, and youth violence. As a result, teachers are required to be well-versed in far more than school curriculum to ensure students are prepared to face the world inside and outside of the classroom. Acting as more than teachers, but also mentors, counselors, and cheerleaders, they must be equipped with practical and relevant resources to help their students navigate some of the more complicated social issues – though access to such tools isn't always guaranteed.

Take Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, for example, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years, and as a teacher for seven. Entering the profession, she didn't anticipate how much influence a student's home life could affect her classroom, including "students who lived in foster homes" and "lacked parental support."

Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

So what resources do teachers turn to in an increasingly fractured world? "Joining a professional learning network that supports and challenges thinking is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can do to support their own learning," Anglemyer says.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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