It had been hours, and the migrant girl hadn’t moved from her seat. The crowded facility that held her was one among many in El Paso, Texas, where migrants were taken after U.S. Border Control processing. She and her father were from Honduras and had joined the growing number of asylum seekers headed for the United States. Unsurprisingly, their journey had been a harrowing one. As they crossed the border of Guatemala into Mexico, border patrol opened fire on them, causing the bus they were traveling in to flip over and sending all the passengers fleeing on foot. Tree branches scratched the girl’s face and yanked out locks of her hair as she scrambled for shelter from the gunfire. They then slept outside for days on their way through Mexico and went on to suffer weeks in detention centers after being taken by U.S. Border Patrol. As the ordeal went on, the girl had stopped eating and grown despondent. Even after being released from processing and received by a church, where she was bathed, clothed, and fed, the girl remained emotionally shut down and numb from the trauma she’d endured. It wasn’t until she was given a simple coloring book that the child she had been before the chaos began to reemerge.
“She sat at the table and colored for hours,” recounts Deborah Diaz, founder of Colors for the Children (Colores para los Niños), an initiative that provides migrant boys and girls with crayons and coloring books as a form of art therapy. “She was quiet, but you could tell with each hour that she relaxed more and more, and became more of a child.” Deborah knows that for that little girl, and for so many like her, those few hours coloring were the first time in months that she felt—and was treated—like a child. “You can see it,” Deborah says of donating coloring books. “Once you hand it to the children, you see them come alive. You see them become children again. That really touches you, because you recognize there’s someplace [for them] to go put [all that suffering away] and forget about it for a while.”
Deborah, an El Paso native, had begun volunteering at local churches through the encouragement of her best friend, just as the number of incoming migrants began to skyrocket. “We’ve all taken on the job of volunteering,” she says, “because it’s the only way we can get them processed through El Paso.” It was during her volunteer efforts that Deborah recognized the need for something beyond the bare necessities the children were being given. “I noticed so many children that weren’t being provided anything in terms of just being children,” she says. “They’re silent for a long time, and the whole time you’re taking them to feed them, or you’re helping them get clothes, you recognize that they’re being quiet—and a quiet child is usually a child who is shut down. So I started taking coloring books and leaving them there.” However, Deborah soon found that the facilities were neglecting the coloring books. “I noticed that they got pushed over to the side because food and clothing quickly become more important,” she remembers. “So, that’s when I decided to organize it a little bit more so that it’s more obvious that they need this.” For Deborah, the question was, How?
“I want to provide as many little ones that are currently traveling with their parents/migrants from our current crisis [with] coloring books and colors.”
In June of 2018, Deborah discovered the Idealists of the World Facebook group, and that’s when the wheels began turning. “I bumped into the page and I read [Idealist founder] Ami’s first post, and I decided to follow, which I have loved doing.” It was through watching the group and seeing the work of idealists all over the world that Deborah not only realized that she was an idealist, but also that what she wanted to do for those migrant children was an important project. “I read for months what people were doing,” she says, “and I think you begin to identify when you find a group of people that are doing stuff like that.” Inspired, Deborah started thinking more deeply about how she could do her part for the boys and girls in the El Paso shelters. She knew she was on to something by providing coloring books, but she needed to find the best way to present it. “It took a lot of thinking,” she says, “of how to give it an identity so people would be at least receptive to the idea.”
The following April, Deborah posted in the Idealists of the World group to reveal her idea for Colors for the Children and outline her mission. “I am starting this little project with great expectations,” she wrote. “I want to provide as many little ones that are currently traveling with their parents/migrants from our current crisis [with] coloring books and colors.” The response was incredibly positive, with idealists jumping at the chance to donate to Deborah’s cause. “They are such good people,” Deborah says. “They don’t know me, and they have sent me these huge boxes, spent enormous amounts of money, and that means a lot. Even though it doesn’t seem very particular, it is, because that means that we’ve connected already, from one city to another.” Deborah also saw an opportunity in connecting Colors for the Children with Idealist Days. “I think because we can actually identify a day where we can do something good, where we can come together,” she says, “and you know that there are people throughout the world doing the same thing, it gives it more power—more significance.”
As a result of her post, Deborah collected 640 packs of crayons, 120 sketchbooks, and more than 400 coloring books from Idealists across the United States and from donors in El Paso. Her collections continued steadily through Idealist Day 5/5, and on 6/6, Deborah kicked off her first Facebook fundraiser. In less than 24 hours, she had exceeded her modest $100 goal, collecting $130 to put towards Colors for the Children. It's slow growth, but Deborah is confident in her trajectory. “I got a few messages that said, ‘Sorry I missed the timeframe you gave us. Next time.’ And so that’s why I’m thinking if I keep doing this and I keep being repetitive, it’ll grow. I just have to put a lot of patience into it.”
To give out her donations, Deborah coordinates with local organizations sheltering migrants after Border Control processing. This includes the Catholic Diocese in El Paso as well as Annunciation House, a shelter for homeless, migrant, and economically vulnerable people at the El Paso-Mexico border. She has also contacted groups in Juarez, Mexico, with the hopes of extending her reach to people on both sides of the migrant crisis. However, Deborah has found that this process, too, requires patience. “It takes time,” she says. “Even right now, I reach out to groups and they don’t call back, they don’t email back, so it’s a constant begging for entry.” Many of the locations of these migrant shelters, Deborah notes, are also very hard to find. “There is a lot of security and little information as to the location of these groups,” she says. “You have some idea where they are if you live here, but the great majority—and the children—are kept away from any media or busybodies, which I can agree is needed.”
It’s no mystery why these organizations aren’t very responsive. In May 2019, Border Patrol agents apprehended a record 132,887 people. Of those, more than 11,500 were children traveling alone. Along with centers in Rio Grande Valley in Texas, and Yuma, Arizona, El Paso’s Border Patrol facilities are seeing the most overcrowding of incoming migrants. This influx has overwhelmed shelters like Annunciation House, and the sheer volume of migrant children being put through the system makes Deborah’s mission much more pressing, but also much more difficult. “I know they are so very busy, and I must be patient,” she says. “However, I am not letting up. I am really hoping that they realize the value of this project.”
"I’m thinking if I keep doing this and I keep being repetitive, it’ll grow. I just have to put a lot of patience into it.”
To anyone who witnessed the change in that little girl from Honduras, who sat coloring quietly in her seat, the light slowly returning to her eyes after months of terror and fear, the value of Colors for the Children is painfully obvious. “This is what I am trying to accomplish,” Deborah says. “To reach that one child that needs it so much with something so basic—so simple. Coloring, to become a child again.”
Still, Deborah’s mission is only in its infancy. She knows that the number of children she has been able to help is only the tip of a wave that grows larger every day. What’s more, she has only been able to work with the small fraction of migrants that have made it through Border Control processing; the children still in custody remain beyond reach. While Deborah’s impact is undeniable, and the experiences of the children she has helped are scarcely imaginable, they pale in comparison to what those still in the detention centers are subjected to every day. “My biggest goal would be to reach the children who are currently in the system,” Deborah says. “I think they need it the most. The children who are already out of the system are in a better place, but those still locked up, they’re treated like criminals, and so to help them at least feel that they are still children would be amazing. That’s my wish, to be able to reach that group as well.”
Until now, government red tape and strict security protocols make that goal an incredibly difficult one to achieve, but Deborah is committed to doing all that she can. “I don’t want to lose that momentum,” she says. “There are days when I feel it just comes to a stop, but I know that there are children out there, and I know we’re going to have high, high numbers continuing to come. So, if I can get to as many of them that I can help, then that will make it all worthwhile.”