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July 14, 2022

Holy Angels Students Examine Immigration Issues in South Texas

 A group of rising juniors and seniors from the Academy of the Holy Angels recently spent time with children in South Texas; but this was more than a holiday. These Angels were part of a Mission Awareness Process trip that allowed them to learn how the School Sisters of Notre Dame (AHA’s foundresses and sponsors) offer support to migrants near the Texas-Mexico border. AHA’s volunteers interacted with migrant families and children, and spoke with an immigration attorney.


Grace Cuttita of Glen Rock, Breanna Hetzer of Nutley, Jackie LaMastra of Tenafly, Raffaela Manoy of New Milford, Marina Poire of Dumont, Sydney Ponti of Secaucus, Ava Santoro of Old Tappan, and Ava Tripodi of Emerson spent the week of June 13 in San Antonio and McAllen. They worked with Sister Regina Palacios from the SSND Central Pacific Province, AHA Campus Ministry Director/SSND Associate Kathleen Sylvester, and AHA Social Studies Department Chair Gail Fair.



Kathleen Sylvester said the group gained an awareness of the complexities of the situation at the border. “I know they were frustrated that there was not enough clothing, and especially there were not enough shoes, to give to those who needed them.  I also know they were talking about finding ways to bring this need back to the larger AHA community in the fall.”


Marina Poire, who served as the group’s English/Spanish translator, said there were times she was so surprised by the migrants’ stories that she would forget to translate.



The Angels kept a travelogue, beginning in San Antonio, where they stopped at an outdoor marketplace, an authentic Mexican restaurant, and the Alamo. They later visited the SSNDs who live in the area.


“The time spent with the sisters was something that really stood out to all of us,” Sydney Ponti wrote. “We learned about Sister Peggy (McGaffney, former campus minister at AHA), who left a legacy of kindness and service on the SSND and our school community…Hearing about the sisters’ individual experiences was something that was also influential for all of us.” Ponti said the sisters’ life stories encouraged Ponti and her peers to serve others.


The students met three groups of young migrant boys at Saint Peter & and Saint Joseph Children’s Home. The boys discussed their journeys to the United States and their future goals. The Angels saw the children’s living conditions and classrooms, and played volleyball. Later, the group traveled to McAllen.


“Before going to bed, we joined together with Sister Regina and Sister Bridget to reflect on our day,” Ava Tripodi wrote. “We prayed and shared how much of an impact this trip has already had on us. It is inspiring to see (migrants’) strength, determination, and courage when dealing with these dangerous conditions with no guarantee of staying.”


Poire added, “Some kids explained how they were lost, and how many days they went without food. Some of them were kidnapped and some of them had to run from kidnappers. Their stories were sad, but their hopes were high, and it gave us hope for them as well.”


Ava Santoro detailed the group’s volunteer work at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen.



“We made sandwiches, did laundry, colored with the migrant children, and packed clothing bags with items they needed,” Santoro said. “Despite the difficult journey, the migrants still have a smile on their face. That smile radiates throughout the room.”


Jackie LaMastra said the group brought a guitar to the center so they could sing and dance with the children. “It was a very memorable experience bonding with the kids…It was incredible to us how joyful the kids were even after the hardships they endured coming here.”


The volunteers helped fill clothing requests at the center. 


“There were some people who asked for a mere pair of shoes that I knew we could not give them because they were low in stock, and it was horrible to write out an order I knew had a slim chance of being delivered,” Poire shared. “Every order needed the person’s name, age, and the ages and genders of the people with them who needed clothing. Every order told a story of brave travelers, whether they were a lone mother with four children, a young pregnant girl by herself, or a twelve-year-old unaccompanied minor scared to give out their last name…Taking orders made me feel grateful for the life I was given, and even more grateful that I was able to provide this service to someone who needed what I had access to every day.”


Rafaella Manoy said the last day at the center was bittersweet. She explained, “Walking in, we saw the same little girl as the day before, and I was happy to receive a hug, but sad that she and her family hadn’t left yet…Being able to help the migrants as this center has been so rewarding, and I am so grateful for this experience. I am sad to leave, but happy I was able to help some of the people there.”


Breanna Hetzer commented on the group’s visit with immigration attorney Miriam Aguayo, who explained some intricacies of the immigration process, including those prompted by the pandemic.


“Even those who entered the U.S. when they had a medical emergency were soon sent back to Mexico because of COVID,” Hetzer shared. “We were additionally shocked when we learned that the approval rate for immigrants from Mexico to get into the U.S. with an attorney is about 30 percent.”


Toward the end of their trip, the group toured the border wall and the Rio Grande.



“We were able to touch the wall and pray there for all of the migrants making their tough journeys,” Grace Cuttita wrote. “We made the observation that the slits in the wall almost make it worse than not being able to see through it because something you want so much seems so close, yet so far away…We tried to imagine anyone trying to scale the wall, especially after hearing stories of mothers throwing their children over the wall or others dying while trying to get over…“(W)e saw various border control agents and military officers, which made us feel uneasy…This experience today was very disturbing and eye-opening as it was hard to imagine some immigrants we met having to go through the dangers of crossing the river or scaling the wall in hopes of finding opportunities in the U.S. or escape from violence from their countries.”


Gail Fair added, “This was a life-changing experience for our students as well as for me. Seeing and hearing the experiences of the young, unaccompanied boys at St. Peter & St. Joseph Children’s Home was our first encounter with the dire conditions and reasons why the refugee movement is so large…While it was both physically and emotionally difficult for us, and we knew we would never know what happens to these refugees, I was so proud of our students. They learned so much and opened their hearts to the needs of others.”


Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County. While AHA is steeped in Catholic tradition, this prestigious school serves young women from many cultural and religious backgrounds.