By Chelsea Quackenbush
Sitting with Gracie Vazquez as she shares her life in the activity room of the Penitas Community Transformation Center, the conversation suddenly grows quiet. It’s that awkward kind of quiet when you want to comfort the sweet 17-year-old girl sitting across from you, the one searching for words and choked up with tears, but you don’t know what to say, either.
Her emotions well up as she tries to describe what it means to her that the CTC staff is helping her change her citizenship status; that they’ve poured so much effort into her the past two years; that they’ve helped her discover a sense of self-worth and purpose in life.
She knows her life – and her future – can be completely different.
Gracie is a bright and vivacious high school senior. She is the president of the CTC Youth Leaders. The group volunteers in the community by picking up trash, leading Vacation Bible Schools, doing fundraisers and collecting supplies for people in need.
“I like leading (the CTC Youth Leaders) because I get to represent us. And I have a strong voice,” she said, laughing. “It has changed my character. I don’t think of myself anymore; I think of others.
“I have experienced a lot of things I didn’t think I would. I’d never been to a camp. I went outside and picked up trash with the whole group. I never volunteered. I never gave my time to help others.”
She dreams of going to school to become a nurse. Like a lot of teens in the colonias of the Valley where the poverty and unemployment levels are high, she would be the first in her family to complete high school, let alone go to college.
She comes from a family of six and lives in a tiny house in a colonia near the CTC. A mission team from Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas shingled the roof on their home to protect them from leaks and rain. It’s a tight space, but she knows nothing different. She’s used to taking care of her brothers and sisters.
Gracie said she was nervous to tell staff at the CTC about her citizenship status. She was born in Mexico but has lived in the U.S. since she was six months old. She wanted to enroll in a nursing aide program at school but couldn’t without a Social Security number.
“You have to have a Social Security number to get a background check,” she said. “I didn’t know but my hopes were still up. Then my teacher told me and I was crushed.”
It was then she realized she wouldn’t be able to accomplish much without changing her citizenship. Once staff at the CTC heard, they sprang into action. They found an immigration lawyer in San Antonio to help with the case, free of charge.
They’ve arranged transportation to get a government ID. They’ve talked to Mexican government officials to find her birth certificate. They’ve made appointments in neighboring McAllen and Harlingen to get her a passport.
But most important has been the urgency with which they’ve operated – they’re trying to complete the process by Gracie’s 18th birthday in November. Once she turns 18, it’s not impossible to get her citizenship status changed but it’s much more difficult.
“If Gracie is going to have any hope of reaching her dream of becoming a nurse it will come through the Buckner CTC helping her to amend her legal status,” said CTC case manager Andrew Trujillo. “She has a pathway to citizenship through her stepfather. However, the family has not been able to navigate the immigration system on their own. She is a bright, optimistic and hard-working young lady, who is now a devoted Christ-follower. But, if her status is not amended, there is very little hope for her to have a successful future.”
Tears spilled down her cheeks as she searched for words to describe how her life has been changed by the generosity and dedication of the CTC staff. She knows she couldn’t have done any of it without their help.
“I just feel safe and like I can count on Buckner,” she said. “It makes me feel important.”
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