The beach with her family was everything Anna had hoped it would be. Lots of fun playing with cousins and enjoying the sun, sand creations, and catching crabs.
It rained on the fourth day, but by that time everyone could use a break from the sun. Rainy days meant board games or movies. It was the only time all year that the whole family —grandparents, parents, siblings and cousins—did those things together. And it was great fun. Lovie would lose to the younger cousins just so they could win. Kappy sang goofy songs that described what was happening in the game before him but using a familiar tune. The grandchildren all tried to mimic him, and he and Lovie laughed with us when we got stuck and couldn’t make the words just right. After a few trips to the beach, the grandchildren considered it sport to try and beat Kappy to the punch.
On that rainy night, after all of the games had ended, Aunt Jessie, Aunt Grace, Kappy, Anna and Anna’s mom were sitting on the patio of the condo, listening to the waves and the ocean breeze. Anna’s phone buzzed and she saw a new message from Rocío. She had never responded to the one Rocío sent on the trip down to the beach.
Anna quickly responded that she was sorry about not responding but would talk to her on Monday when she got back from the beach. She asked Rocío if she wanted to get together and talk. Rocío replied, “I can’t. I have to watch my little sister and my little brother while my mom and dad are at work. Call me Tuesday morning at 501-383-1105.” Anna’s mother asked her who she was texting with and Anna said, “My friend, Rocío.”
Aunt Grace said, “Rocío Hernandez?”
“Yes,” said Anna.
“I didn’t know you and Rocío were friends. She was one of my best students in second grade,” Aunt Grace continued.
“She wants to talk about our Pledge of Allegiance summer project, the one I told you and Lovie about, Kappy. She told me to call her but the number is not the same as her mom’s cell phone.”
“Anna,” said Aunt Jessie, what’s the number she gave you?”
“That’s the church’s number,” said Aunt Jessie. “Maybe, Rocío doesn’t want you to know, but Rocío and her brother and sister come to the church every Monday through Friday for our Safe Haven. She and her brother and sister are waiting for me each morning when I arrive at the church. I think their mother drops them off on the way to work. I’m happy to see them every morning. Rocío is a good little momma, and Arora and Natán are precious. Have you met her little brother and sister?”
“No,” said Anna. “We only see each other at school. Her family doesn’t come to things at the school like PTA.”
Aunt Jessie and Aunt Grace glanced at each other before Jessie nodded to Grace to go ahead and explain.
Aunt Grace continued, “This may be hard for you to understand, but Rocío and her family have a hard time. They live in a camping trailer – the kind people pull behind a car. It’s the kind that pops up like a tent.”
“They live there all the time?” said Anna.
“How do they cook? How do they wash their clothes? How does Rocío do her homework?” asked Anna.
“It’s probably not easy, and I don’t really know,” said Aunt Jessie, “but we let them wash clothes at the church and we’ve offered to let them live in our mission house, but they are afraid.”
“Rocío and her sister and brother were all born in the United States so they are citizens. Rocío’s mother, Sara, was born in the United States but didn’t have a birth certificate. Because she was born at home and her parents moved around for work, her birth wasn’t registered with the state. A volunteer lawyer helped her get a judge to order the state to give her a birth certificate. Until then, she didn’t exist as far as the state was concerned.”
“So all of you know Rocío – and have helped her family?” asked Anna.
“Yes,” said Kappy, “all doing a little bit.”
“So why won’t they live in the mission house?”
“Like I said, they’re afraid. They’re afraid that if someone knows where they live, the dad will be sent back to El Salvador, since he is not a U.S. citizen,” said Aunt Jessie. “Right now, their camper is parked at the old sawmill on Chicago Mill Road,” added Aunt Grace. “The owner is a member of Aunt Jessie’s church and they are pretty sure no one will bother them there. He drops by from time to time to check on them. The church and the school are their safety net. They know they can always come to us, but they don’t know whether someone may cause problems for them by calling the sheriff. So we offer help and let them accept what they want. We don’t force anything on them.”
“And don’t forget the help from the legal aid lawyers,” added Kappy. “Without Kevin and Harry, Rocío’s family would have a lot of other problems to deal with. Getting the birth certificate and health insurance were all their doing.”
Anna was bewildered by all of this new information. She sat silently, worried about Rocío and her family – worried about things she had never thought about before. It explained a lot though. Rocío made good grades and was one of the neatest girls in the class. “How could she be like that, living in a camper trailer?” she wondered to herself.
Aunt Jessie couldn’t help but notice. “I hope we didn’t tell you too much,” she said, “but Rocío is a very special girl and now that you understand, you can be the best friend she could ever have.”
Anna didn’t say anything but wondered what it would be like to sleep in a pop-up camper tonight instead of their condo. And what was it like when it was cold or rainy? She finally broke her silence with a question, “Why would a school and a church and a lawyer do this for Rocío and her family?”
Aunt Jessie answered first. “It’s who we are as a church. We reach out to those in need and share God’s love. There are a lot of Rocíos, Aroras and Natáns out there, and I’m grateful that my church members want to touch each one of them.”
Aunt Grace chimed in, “Students may think that we teachers are just making them do work, but we care about them and see their potential. We want each of them to succeed and that often means helping them when they are not at school so they can do their best while at school. I used to worry about Rocío and her family every day when she left my class.”
Kappy, happy but moved just to be a part of this conversation with his granddaughter, could only say, “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, Anna, including Rocío and her family. I want to make sure that happens for families like Rocío’s.”
Aunt Jessie ended the conversation with an invitation for Anna to join her on Tuesday at Safe Haven. “Can I?” Anna asked her mother. “Yes, Annie,” said her mother, who was also moved by Rocío’s story. Anna jumped in her mother’s lap and hugged her tight before heading off to bed.