March 17, 2023

Families open their hearts and homes to unaccompanied children crossing the border

A migrant boy, who is traveling with his family to seek asylum in the United States, plays with a Captain America action figure along the border between Mexico and the United States in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Dec. 27, 2022. Some families in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have welcomed unaccompanied children at the border into their homes, serving as short-term foster parents for the children who hope to be reunited with their parents and other family members in the United States. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

A migrant boy, who is traveling with his family to seek asylum in the United States, plays with a Captain America action figure along the border between Mexico and the United States in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on Dec. 27, 2022. Some families in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis have welcomed unaccompanied children at the border into their homes, serving as short-term foster parents for the children who hope to be reunited with their parents and other family members in the United States. (CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters)

By John Shaughnessy

Like many people, Sara Fichtner struggles to overcome her introverted nature when she first meets someone new.

In these moments, she’s learned to take a deep breath, to whisper a short prayer and to always remember this thought:

“Imagine all the people in your life who were once strangers whom you now love; people who have taught you something, supported you, inspired you, challenged you and loved you back.”

On a recent winter morning, around 2 a.m., the 46-year-old Fichtner tried to imagine what was going through the mind of the 10-year-old girl standing before her.

Fichtner knew the girl was one of the thousands of unaccompanied children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries who have made a long journey to cross the Mexican-American border and enter the United States in the hope of being reunited with their parents.

The member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis also knew those journeys could be heartbreaking and even touched with fear and violence for these children.

The mother of two young sons also knew how politically divisive and emotionally-charged the whole border issue is in the United States. (Related story: For agency president and foster parents, children crossing the border comes down to ‘a simple question’)

But none of that mattered in that moment when Sara looked into the nervous eyes of the quiet, tired girl who had spent the past 24 hours being processed at the border and then put on an airplane, with a U.S. government official, to Indianapolis. There, Sara and her husband Mario had agreed to welcome the child into their Indianapolis home as her short-term foster parents—all part of the girl’s transition to hopefully being reunited with her parents after five years.

After picking up the girl at the agency that oversees this transitional foster care program in Indianapolis—Bethany Christian Services—Sara led the girl to her car as a soft snow began to fall.

“The first few minutes of the car ride were a bit nerve-wracking as we tried to think of what to say to each other,” Sara recalled later in a blog she writes. “When our family started fostering back in August and picked up our first child, it was like leaving the hospital for the first time with a newborn baby. We felt the excitement and relief that we could do something important, but that was mixed with anxiousness at the sheer responsibility of taking care of another human being.

“For a stretch of the drive, the little girl and I were quiet as I navigated the dark streets, and the snow fluttered past my windshield. After some deep breaths and prayers, I broke the ice. I asked if she had ever seen snow before. She said no. I asked if she had lived in a big city or a small town, and then I said something funny that made her laugh. I could hear the relief in her voice as she answered my questions, both of us taking a little bit of an exhale.

“I didn’t want us to be strangers, so my not-quite-perfect Spanish and introverted nature were overcome by my need to make her feel safe and welcome, and loved.”

Dangerous journeys, heartbreaking stories and a touch of love

As the parents of five grown children, Anne and Jerry Corcoran are quick at observing the actions of children, and they’ve learned one revealing behavior of the 10 unaccompanied children that they have welcomed into their home in the past year.

“One of the things I’ve noticed is that when you show them their room, they’re quite happy and relieved, but they always say good night at the door, and you hear them lock it,” Anne says. “They’ll do that for a week and a half. After that, you’ll be reading stories in their room or talking with them. But before that time, they’re real careful about keeping themselves safe.”

In many cases, that cautious, often-fearful reaction is a reflection of the journeys they have made to try to reunite with their parents and families.

“Their trips to the border are traumatic events for the most part,” Jerry says. “It’s violent and scary, and it takes a long time to make the journey.”

Anne adds, “They’re just trying to get to parents who are already here or other family members who are already here. Some are being sent with ‘coyotes’ [someone who smuggles immigrants across the border], and it’s really dangerous. We’ve heard some crazy stories. There were some who were hiding in a warehouse for a week. Another was in a boxcar for a couple of days without food and water. The Mexican police will extort them.”

As short-term foster parents, the Corcorans offer a contrasting world: a safe place to live, nourishing meals and opportunities to be a child again—playing games, exercising, doing art projects, going to movies and restaurants.

“We also take them to church,” says Jerry, who is a member of St. Monica Parish with Anne. “We try to attend the Latino Mass at St. Monica. It’s just an extension of what we hold dear to us in terms of our faith.”

The children also make daily visits to Bethany, which collaborates with the Social Concerns Ministries of Catholic Charities in the archdiocese and the

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. At Bethany, the children receive medical care, emotional counseling, educational assessments and lessons in speaking English.

There are also the phone calls they make daily to talk with the parents they are looking forward to being reunited with—and phone calls to the family members they have left behind.

“Sometimes, that’s the heartbreaking thing,” says Anne, a former pastoral associate at St. Monica Parish who retired in 2021. “This one little boy from Honduras was on his way to his mom who he hadn’t seen in seven years. So he’s calling his mom, and then he got permission to call his aunt, who was kind of his mom because that’s who he had lived with for the past seven years in Honduras.

“He’d almost light up more when he talked to his aunt. You really realize how torn they are because they had loving relatives who cared for them in one place, but they can’t wait to be with their parents.”

‘There’s the commandment to love your neighbor’

As short-term foster parents, the Fichtners and the Corcorans receive a stipend for providing food, clothing and other necessities for the immigrant children they welcome into their homes.

They also have completed an extensive training program to become licensed as foster parents by the Indiana Department of Child Services. And there are also requirements involving background checks, job history and proof of insurance.

Helping the immigrant children directly appeals to both couples.

“I just wanted to do anything I could to support them,” Anne says about the children they have welcomed into their home. “Evidently, there’s a law that you can’t hold the kids at the border for more than 72 hours. The government has to get them into a child-friendly place. And they prefer foster care. They’re with us for as long as it takes for their parents to prove who they are. The average stay is about two weeks.”

Jerry adds, “Through Anne’s work at St. Monica, we had gotten to know quite a few Latino parishioners, and we became really good friends with them. And St. Monica has a relationship with a small country parish in Honduras. I’ve done five different trips there over the last 10 years as part of that mission ministry. I have quite a few friends I’ve gotten to know in Honduras over time. So we’re both drawn to the Latino community not only in Indianapolis but globally.”

While sharing that commitment, the Fichtners also have two other important reasons for becoming foster parents for immigrant children.

First, their family is marked by immigrant stories, with Mario arriving in the United States from Argentina when he was 28, and Sara’s mom coming to America from the Philippines.

They also view this experience of opening their homes as an eye-opening opportunity for their two sons, 13-year-old Cristian and 9-year-old Roman.

“I’d like for our kids to see how fortunate they are living here and not going through some of the struggles that kids from somewhere else have to go through,” Mario says. “This also helps our kids practice their Spanish.”

Sara notes, “I wanted to do some kind of service with our kids. This is a ministry that we could do together as a family. And part of this service is teaching our kids about our faith. There’s the commandment to love your neighbor. We have to care about people and take care of them as we can.”

The experience has been both a blessing and a challenge for Cristian.

“I like to hear about how the kids lived, what they ate, and what they called certain things,” Cristian says. “I enjoy playing sports with them and showing them things they wouldn’t see where they came from.

“The hardest thing about this is communication. Sometimes I would say the wrong word in Spanish or not be able to speak fast enough. I learned that people have to leave their homes and come to a place they aren’t familiar with. I have peace in my mind when they leave happy to see their parents.”

‘Sometimes the hugs just don’t end’ 

Sara Fichtner’s thoughts return to the 10-year-old girl she first met on the snowy morning earlier this winter.

She remembers how the girl told them she liked basketball, so they took her to an Indiana Pacers’ game.

She remembers how the girl spent Christmas Day with Sara’s extended family, delighting in the presents she was given.

Most of all, Sara remembers learning about the best gift the girl received shortly after Christmas.

Accompanied by a caseworker from Bethany, the girl took a plane from Indianapolis International Airport to the city where her parents lived—to a reunion with her parents after five years of being separated from them, five years in which she lived with relatives.

“The caseworker sent us a picture of her with her parents at the airport,” Sara says. “She called afterward to thank us and tell us she was with her family. It was sweet that she called because typically we don’t have any contact with them after they’re reunited. We were happy and relieved for her. She was close with her parents and talked with them often on the phone. We all just wanted for her to be with them again.”

Anne Corcoran says these reunions—whether witnessing them in person or later in a photo—are deeply touching.

“They’ve waited so long to be back together. They just hug, and sometimes the hugs just don’t end. And they’re crying and crying.”

She sees being a part of the entire experience as a reflection of the Catholic faith.

“It’s just the heart of it. It’s easy to see them as brothers and sisters, and I think that comes from our faith. A lot of them are Christian and devout. I think having that faith makes them really seem related to us in a really deep way.

“There’s this closeness. You just feel this connection, this bond.”

(For more information about the transitional foster care program for unaccompanied refugee children, visit the website for Bethany Christian Services at

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