Pennsylvania town applauds plan to shelter migrant children

EMSWORTH, Pa. -It was standing room only at a community meeting in a western Pennsylvania town as Sister Linda Yankoski explained why she's opening her doors to migrant children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border alone.

"There are children sleeping on the floor," Yankoski said at Tuesday night's meeting, "and I have a bed."

Yankoski, the chief executive officer of Holy Family Institute, a Catholic children's home and school in Emsworth, says she has room for up to 36 unaccompanied alien children, or UACs. Yankoski says her decision to take in some UACs - more than 57,000 have crossed this year - is rooted in faith.

"They are the most vulnerable children right now living in America," she said in an interview. "We have the resources, we have the ability and we have the will to do this. It's just part of who we are."

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Residents of Emsworth, Pa., and nearby communities turned out for a meeting on a plan to house migrant kids at a local Catholic children's home.
Hannah Fraser-Chanpong

The decision raised some concern in the community, a mostly residential enclave of about 2,800 outside Pittsburgh. People raised questions about health, safety and the misuse of dollars which some say are better off serving local children.

"If we have needs here and we have bills we have to take care of here, what is responsible?" asked Rob Medonis, a resident from nearby South Hills who attended the meeting.

Emsworth Mayor Dee Quinn, who was initially "stunned" to hear the news that Holy Family would become a shelter, said she wanted answers for her constituents.

"A lot of them are concerned about the illnesses that the children could be bringing here," Quinn said Tuesday afternoon, "to not only the community but even if the people that work there get in touch with these children, then they could be carrying that to wherever they live."

But most at the meeting, which drew nearly 200 people, were supportive of Yankoski's plan.

"This is something...we're called to do as human beings," said Fox Chapel resident Sara Cuada Berg. "If you're not Christian, than at least believe it to be something that you do for your fellow human beings."

Cuada Berg, who was one of about two dozen to approach a microphone set up between chairs at Sacred Heart Church, arrived in the area from Nicaragua when she was a teenager. She recounted her first years in the United States, living at Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden, Pa.

"You gave me a home," she said. "It is because of what you did for me that I am the person I am today."

Others offered to donate money or volunteer at the shelter on Holy Family's 10-acre campus. One man, who described himself as a "blue-collar American," summed up his reaction with a question: "Will you call me if you need any help?"

It's unclear how long each child will be at Holy Family, but Yankoski says she was told that stays usually last between 30 and 40 days. She didn't know, however, how many of the children coming to Emsworth may have relatives or other sponsors in the Pittsburgh area. While Pittsburgh is the second largest city in Pennsylvania, census data shows that only 2.3 percent of its population is Hispanic or Latino.

"There isn't any way for us to know how many of the children coming to our Pittsburgh shelter will stay in Pittsburgh," she said. "There may be some that are placed with their relatives in Pittsburgh but from what I understand families live across the U.S."

The timeline is important to some residents, who have voiced worry about the children attending local public schools. Holy Family plans to arrange classes - math, English, history - led by Spanish-speaking educators for the children on its campus, at a cost that Yankoski says will be reimbursed by the U.S. government, along with costs for food and clothing. A child might be enrolled in a public school, but only after leaving the shelter.

"We are not going to have to utilize community resources for the care of these children," she said.

The meeting came to a close after about an hour and a half of discussion but no changes to Holy Family's plan.

"There will always be people for it and there's always going to be people against it," Quinn said. "But at least hopefully they will be more at peace with what's going to happen in our neighborhood."

The children are set to arrive later this year, though no exact date has been set.

  • Hannah Fraser-Chanpong

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