'This has changed me'; Vineyarders say migrants transformed their lives, missions
When Donna McElroy thinks about the time she spent with the 48 Venezuelan migrants flown unexpectedly to Martha’s Vineyard two weeks ago, her first memories are of the moments that make her laugh. The 74-year-old nurse speaks Spanish, so she bonded closely with a number of them.
“The guys, when they were leaving, they said that I would be their abuelita,” she said (that's Spanish for “little grandma”). “And then I got a Snapchat thing and it was addressed to ‘Abuela.’”
McElroy, who lives year-round in Vineyard Haven, cherishes these moments, but she also remembers the graphic details one man shared about his journey from Venezuela to the United States. That memory makes her eyes go wide.
“He pulled out his cell phone. He's the one that showed us the video burying members of his family,” she said. “I believe that person was killed by a cartel.”
Many volunteers heard stories like this — stories that they say disturb their sleep, stories that left them feeling guilty or helpless. But still, McElroy said she wouldn’t wish any of it away.
“On Saturday, I even Mapquested Joint Base Cape Cod to see which bus I could take to go see them. And then I had to have a talk with myself and say, 'Donna, this is beautiful. But it's time to move on.'”
Today, many of the migrants are temporarily living in dorms on Joint Base Cape Cod. Two weeks after their departure from the island, many of the volunteers who rallied around them at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Edgartown say they consider their encounters to have been transformational. For them the central question now is: how can they turn that experience into lasting change?
“Part of what I'm going through is: you're up on all this energy. You're up on their hope, their excitement, their happiness,” said Ilona Metell, a Vineyarder who volunteers with many organizations, including the Red Cross. She went to the shelter shortly after the migrants arrived. “And then you have all the helpers and their energy wanting the very best for them and giving them all this love and all this support. And you're just high with that kind of energy. And then it's over. And what do you do with all of that?”
She’s struck by the generosity of police officers, dentists, high school students, restaurateurs, and thrift store owners who offered their help. But she’s also angry about what the migrants had to go through.
“Like how they got there — it was a political stunt. That just infuriates me,” Metell said. “You can't treat people like trash.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the migrants be flown to the Vineyard in an effort to criticize President Joe Biden's U.S.-Mexico border policies.
But if the goal was to embarrass the islanders as elitists who would recoil at so many people in need, Reverend Cathlin Baker, a pastor at First Congregational Church of West Tisbury, said he failed.
“We saw an abundance of care and an abundance of compassion, versus that sort of scarcity feeling like, ‘Can we solve this problem? Are we going to be able to?’ It was sort of like we rose to a moment and we showed what we were capable of,” she said, sitting inside the sanctuary of the church, the same room where 18 of the migrant men had slept.
Baker helped lead a reflection event last week that drew about 50 people. Many spoke about the desire to take on more local volunteer work and address big island problems.
“As much as we wanted to keep everyone here to welcome them to stay forever, we know how challenging housing is,” she said. “So I thought that it was interesting to say, 'Maybe we need to fix the housing crisis, so that we can really receive, so that we can fully welcome.'”
And Baker said, maybe there’s more the island can do to help border communities.
“There was this impulse to connect with churches in Texas along the border, or to partner with other communities that are having this same experience of unexpected busloads,” she said.
Lisa Belcastro, who ran the church shelter, says the experience was profound. It inspired her to become more informed about immigration.
“This has changed me. I don't ever want to go back to being unaware. And now I have to know what I can do next, like what my options are,” she said. “So what does that look like? You know, that's the next question for me. There's more. I just don't know what that ‘more’ is.”
McElroy, the nurse, said she knows what her “more” looks like.
“I know my life is changed. I know this is what I've been missing and I need to have it continue in my life,” McElroy said about the feeling of community that the experience produced. “So Friday, I went to our food pantry and I asked how I could volunteer at the food pantry. And then today I had lunch with two good friends, one of them is involved with hospice. And so I asked her how I could become a hospice volunteer.”
The DeSantis administration has said that it will continue to transport migrants to so-called “sanctuary states'' and places like Martha’s Vineyard. So people like Ilona Metel are preparing for a possible next time. What happens if another plane comes?
“We jump back into action,” she said. “The best thing we can do is exactly what we did.”
The only thing they’d do differently, she said, is label the food and bathrooms better, have a shelter, and a backup shelter. They’d be ready.
Portions of interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.