Sarah Jackson is the founder and director of Casa de Paz (House of Peace), a house for undocumented immigrants and their families in Aurora, Colorado. Jackson also founded Volleyball Latino, a bilingual league whose proceeds fund her hospitality work.
This is part two of four in a series featuring Mennonites working with immigrants. Projects featured in this series received grants from a special offering received at Mennonite Church USA’s 2013 convention in Phoenix toward the DREAMer Fund. These projects were chosen as grant recipients because they have a strong history of working with immigrants in their communities, especially with undocumented individuals and families who suffer from inhumane conditions in detention centers and unjust treatment in working environments.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
Would you ever imagine that a volleyball league would somehow be helping to put a roof over the heads of people affected by immigrant detention in Colorado?
Yeah … neither did I! Until my dream became reality. But first let me back up.
A few years ago I made my first journey to the Mexico/US border to learn more about how the border impacts life for millions of people. What I remember about the trip was meeting people, real people.
For a myriad of reasons, this border is there, preventing people from reuniting with those they love dearly. After my week down there, I knew my life was going to change. But I didn’t know how.
The first part of my life that changed was actually moving to Aurora and renting an apartment located directly across the street from the immigrant detention center. In this center, immigrants are held for a variety of reasons. They are from all over the world, although the majority of them are Latino. There are men and women, brothers and sisters, moms and dads.
They could be there for days, weeks, months, or longer than a year. They’re waiting for a judge to determine if they can be released or must be deported.
You can see this immigrant detention center from my one-bedroom apartment. Every day it’s staring at me, a reminder that families are not together. I couldn’t live knowing this and not do my part to reunite them.
Think about a family who is living in California and their dad was detained there, but transferred to Aurora. Detention centers have quotas. If they don’t meet their quotas, they’ll just ship in people from all over the country to reach them.
This family obviously wants to be there for their dad during his court hearing, or just to visit him. As you can imagine, loss of income from the person who is detained can be financially disastrous. Making a trip to Aurora could be impossible.
I thought to myself, “If I open up my home and let people stay there for free, maybe they’ll be able to make this trip.” So that’s exactly what I did.
Casa de Paz
Operating out of my one-bedroom apartment, Casa de Paz (House of Peace) has been opened for two years now and we are busier than ever. In addition to hosting families, we have added two new services. Immigrants who have been released from the detention center, but need a place to stay while their travel logistics are worked out are welcome in the home. We also have a dedicated group of visitors going into the detention center almost every day to visit with those who are detained and have nobody to stop by and say hi.
Obviously, this all costs money. The rent, the food, the electricity … it all adds up. I only work part-time, which gives me the flexibility to run the Casa. Every month I was stressing out about paying all the bills. It was almost too much to handle and I wanted to quit. But a friend of mine encouraged me, and told me this was an important home, and the doors needed to stay open.
And that’s where two of my passions suddenly collided: volleyball and families.
Volleyball Latino is a league that started out of the necessity to make money to pay the bills for Casa de Paz. We started with six teams (most of them friends whom I begged to play). Each team pays a registration fee. After expenses (rent, prizes, refs, etc.) are paid, the remaining money goes towards the Casa.
Not only does the league raise money for the Casa, but it has also been wonderful to see the two communities interact with one another. Players from this volleyball league have started volunteering at the Casa, donating household goods, participating in the visitation program, and offering meals and rides to guests.
The league has volleyball players whose loved ones are detained, and we can offer services to them. We have gathered at the gym to make Christmas cards for those who are being detained, and teams regularly donate household items to the Casa.
Sometimes guests at the Casa will come to the volleyball league and meet the players who have impacted their lives. It’s an awesome moment when they walk into the gym and see hundreds of people who care about them, without even knowing their name.
One of my favorite moments was seeing two volleyball players come alongside a young man who was released from the immigrant detention center. He was released with not a dollar to his name. They picked him up from the Casa, took him to lunch, and later shopped for essential things he needed. Once his family purchased him a plane ticket, they brought him to the airport so he could be reunited with his family.
Today we have over 80 teams playing and every single player knows the larger reason behind having fun each week. Because of this league, families can see each other one last time before being separated by detention. Because of this league, people are not left homeless after they’re released from the immigrant detention center. Because of this league, families are reunited.
And that is how my dream became reality.