Community

State rewards group for helping immigrants

GTNS photo by Grace King

Maria Melldo serves food to First Presbyterian Church Pastor Trey Hegar during a Christmas Posada on Sunday, Dec. 23. The Posada was hosted by immigrant families as a thank you to Iowa WINS and the church for their support after the ICE raid in May.
GTNS photo by Grace King Maria Melldo serves food to First Presbyterian Church Pastor Trey Hegar during a Christmas Posada on Sunday, Dec. 23. The Posada was hosted by immigrant families as a thank you to Iowa WINS and the church for their support after the ICE raid in May.
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MOUNT PLEASANT — A group commissioned by a Mount Pleasant church recently received a government-sponsored award for its work with people affected by a 2018 immigration raid.

The Iowa Disaster Human Resource Council bestowed the Don Hampton Award for group volunteer disaster assistance to Iowa Welcomes its Immigrant Neighbors on April 18 in Des Moines.

The award, which is sponsored by the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, was presented by Joyce Flinn, the state’s director of Homeland Security.

“While it was somewhat ironic, it was also touching,” said Trey Hegar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, the parent organization for Iowa WINs.

“They have a job to do,” he said of the government officials. “They’re just like everyone else. It comes down to relationships. When you meet people and find some common ground, it changes how you feel about each other.

The award recognized the group’s support for the families of the 32 men detained last May 9 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, under the direction of the federal Department of Homeland Security, showed up at Midwest Precast concrete in Mount Pleasant.

After the immigration arrests, Iowa WINs generated nearly $150,000 in donations and recruited more than 100 volunteers to tackle issues such as transportation, language barriers, finances, food, education, counseling and more to support affected families.

Hegar said the award was a surprise.

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“It’s encouraging to know other people are looking and seeing how we share the love of God with our neighbors,” he said. “Part of the other encouraging part of being recognized is that this isn’t necessarily the most popular thing to be doing and to be recognized for doing it still is uplifting.”

Rebecca Blair, a Presbyterian Church official who helped nominate Iowa WINs, wrote in her nomination letter that First Presbyterian Church became “Grand Central Station” for supporting the detained men and their families.

After the raid, volunteers met weekly at First Presbyterian Church, where a food pantry was established. English tutors met with several families during the week. Financial assistance was made available through donations and grants.

“This is all about volunteer effort and working for the good of our community,” Iowa WINs leader Tammy Shull said.

When Iowa WINs was established in 2015, organizers initially thought they would be assisting Syrian refugees. While at the time there wasn’t an immediate need to help refugees resettle in the area, Shull said they began developing relationships within the community and across the state and learned a lot about the immigration and asylum process.

Shull said organizers never thought they would end up assisting families after immigration arrests.

“Even when the raid hit, we never imagined how large the response was going to need to be and how long it continues to be needed,” Shull said.

Almost a year after the raid, 24 of the men who were arrested are awaiting immigration hearings that are scheduled throughout this year and next. Seven men were deported, and one man remains in custody at the Hardin County Jail in Eldora.

“We’re really concerned about the last man who was deported,” Shull said. “After he returned to his family home (in Honduras), some men came looking for him, and they attacked his family.”

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Shull said he was able to get away and since has been able to call his wife; however, he remains in hiding. His wife and two children remain in Mount Pleasant.

“We had a big scare,” Hegar said. “You get a palpable sense of if we had let him complete the asylum process, his life wouldn’t have been in danger.”

As the legal process plays out for the detained men, Iowa WINs is looking at moving forward with a “sustainable ministry” project. The project would involve buying and maintaining a food truck, which would provide employment for immigrants and their families.

“It would create a job for a manager position and a couple helpers, and we wouldn’t have to rely as heavily on grants and donations,” Hegar said.

Iowa WINs also is partnering with the Fellowship Cup’s Community Garden and Master Gardeners. The Master Gardeners will help families learn to grow their own produce, some of which will be donated to the food pantry.

“We worked really hard over the last year,” Shull said. “That collaboration and volunteerism is being recognized for making a difference in what was a disaster for our community.”

The organization’s work also is making a difference among First Presbyterian Church’s own members.

“Some of these friends we’ve made have seen some horrific things, and that changes how you feel about black and white issues,” Hegar said.

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On Easter Sunday, First Presbyterian had its first all-Spanish service. Twenty-five people attended, and the church now is considering having a Spanish service once a month in addition to the regularly scheduled English service.

Because of the efforts of Iowa WINs and the church, immigration “has become a unifying issue” for the community, Iowa Disaster Human Resource Council President Greg Smith said in nominating Iowa WINs for the Don Hampton Award.

“Iowa WINs has a strong belief in welcoming outsiders who come into their community,” Smith said. “They believe the community is enriched by doing this. They’re doing amazing things in this little community to heighten sensitivity (around immigration).”

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