Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Run Highlights Kids Who Cross Borders Alone

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 18, 2007

The dips and hills of the sixth Catholic Charities’ Scott’s Run race course got more than 250 runners, dog walkers, and parents with strollers huffing and puffing, but it was nothing compared to the two days in the desert that “Gabbie” survived.

Gabbie was 13 years old, on her own and crossed the border in the Southwest desert.

For her escape from abuse in her home in El Salvador, the youngster carried “two dresses” and a goal to find a sister that she didn’t know in a country she didn’t know.

“It was too hot. We had no water. I can’t sleep when I remember that,” said the pony-tailed, soft-spoken teen.

Gabbie isn’t the young girl’s real name. Her name has been changed by her advocates at Catholic Charities Atlanta. She represented the approximately 130 immigrant children currently being helped by the nonprofit. All of them are younger than 18, without parental guardians here and entered the country by sneaking across the border. She handed out trophies to the fastest runners at the 5K fun run on Saturday, Oct. 6.

Crowds at the Carter Center, where the race started, had good running weather. The sky was overcast, and temperatures were in the 70s. Law students in their John Marshall Law School T-shirts were out in force. A mariachi band entertained the joggers and walkers through the pre-race jitters at the Virginia-Highland landmark along the Freedom Park trail.

The fundraiser is named for the late Scott Starratt, an employee of the then Immigration and Naturalization Service. He cared for foreign children when they were placed in the Georgia Baptist Children’s Home, a safe place for children alone in the country. He died in a car crash in 2001. Starratt worked closely with Sue Colussy, the program director for immigration services for Catholic Charities.

The run raised $54,100 for Catholic Charities’ Immigrant Children’s Advocacy Project, which helps foreign-born children who are in the country alone.

The charity worked with youngsters in this country illegally in the past, but increased its work with young people in the last 18 months when a lawyer specializing in juvenile law joined the staff. Catholic Charities gets the children’s cases through the court system, word-of-mouth from the immigrant community and state agencies.

Federal laws for undocumented young people were rewritten in 2002. The change transferred their care to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, from the Department of Homeland Security. One of the reforms required the young people no longer be held in jails, but in foster home settings. The office is charged with protecting the young people while their court cases are heard.

For his efforts, Michael Freedman, an attorney at the law firm of Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan, received the trophy for fastest man. He crossed the finish line in 17:46.

After finishing the race in 22:27, Theresa Winterhalter, of McDonough, received the trophy from Gabbie’s hand.

“I’ve never run at the Carter Center. Catholic Charities is quite an interesting organization, something people should become involved in,” said Winterhalter, a new fan of the nonprofit.

For Gabbie, it has been more than two years since she arrived here. She is like the more than 7,000 children a year detained by the federal government for immigration violations. Many flee threatening situations, child trafficking, abandonment, prostitution, abuse. The Catholic Charities’ program won legal status for nine children in the past three months.

Catholic Charities lawyer Rebeca Salmon advocates on behalf of Gabbie. She works on the project paid through a fellowship from Equal Justice Works, a group that encourages public interest law careers, and Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan law firm.

The project, which covers Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama, helps children who otherwise risk staying underground, uneducated and vulnerable to more abuse.

“Without it the growing numbers of kids who find themselves in detention here would risk being marginalized and ignored until the age of majority (18) and then deported to countries where they are not safe, not welcome, and many times (which they) do not remember, much less have the ability to survive,” said Salmon in an e-mail.

Gabbie left her village in El Salvador after being abused by her stepfather. As the abuse grew worse, Gabbie said she needed to escape.

With about a dozen strangers, she crossed into this country. Gabbie ended up on this side of the border in a federal detention facility. She ended up in Georgia once immigration officials tracked down her sister, who is nine years older.

She lives in metro Atlanta and is getting Bs and As in school despite not knowing English when she arrived. Her court case is proceeding well, and she could get a special permit for young people in a year’s time. Then there is high school and an undreamed of future.

“I like to write poetry,” she said. “I like to study and learn more. That is my dream.”