If she wanted to, 17-year-old Mary Grace Geise could pretend that what is happening to migrants at our southern border has nothing to do with her lucky life.
She lives with both parents and her younger sister in Bay Village, a predominantly white, affluent suburb of Cleveland. She is a rising senior at Magnificat High School, an all-girls Catholic prep school. Every imaginable material need can be found within a few miles of her house. Outside of her drives to school, she'd seldom have to leave the confines of her cozy suburb.
Except that isn't who Mary Grace was raised to be, and it isn't who she is. And so, earlier this month, she and nine other classmates, along with a few Magnificat teachers and Marissa Madden, director of the school's campus ministry, spent a week at the Mexican border in Arizona.
The annual trip is part of the school's immersion program. It was planned months before the Trump administration began the inhuman practice of separating screaming children from their parents.
"I was even more motivated to go," Mary Grace told me during an interview in her home Wednesday. "I wanted to see for myself what is actually happening."
Their trip included a visit to a U.S. courtroom, where scores of migrants were ordered to detention in groups of seven and eight at a time. "I had no idea what Operation Streamline meant until I sat in that courtroom," she said. "No questions about what they're feeling, who their families are. It was like they weren't human beings."
On the fourth day, the group lugged 10 gallons of water across the desert — and several more to keep themselves hydrated in the 106-degree morning heat — to deposit at a volunteer site near the border for newly arrived immigrants.
That was the mile that changed her, Mary Grace says.
"I was expecting 'Lion King' or African safari, but the desert was so different from that. The terrain was rocky and hilly, and we had to walk very carefully not to lose our footing. We stopped every few minutes to drink water.
"I don't want to say it was 'humbling.' That's such a selfish word, because it wasn't about me. I had an endless supply of water as I walked, but people coming to our border don't have that luxury. I thought, 'I'm out here for three hours total. People walking through the desert to America are out there for days, often weeks.'"
She clutched the silver charm on her necklace, an "angel's wing" from her mother, Jennie. "They have only two options: keep going until they get to the U.S. for a chance to live or go back home to die."
When the girls reached their destination, they gathered up empty water jugs and food wrappers. They used Sharpie pens to write messages in Spanish on the jugs: con amor y carino — "with love and affection" — and agua pura, to assure them that the water is safe to drink.
"To let them know it's not poisoned," she said. "That sometimes happens. My God, how could anyone do that?" She shook her head. "It reminded me of that video of Border Patrol officers pouring out the water from jugs."
Mary Grace was referring to a video that quickly went viral after it was released in January by No More Deaths, a nonprofit group that provides humanitarian aid to migrants in the Arizona desert. In the video, Border Patrol officers were destroying supplies left for migrants. One of them looked defiantly into the camera as he emptied a water bottle onto the ground.
How some play with other people's lives.
Last Saturday, around 11 p.m., Jennie welcomed her daughter home at Cleveland's airport. "Mary Grace," she said, "is it as bad as what they're saying?"
"Mom, it's so much worse."
The next morning, they were sitting in church, minutes away from the moment when congregants would be invited to share "joys and concerns." Jennie whispered to her daughter, "You should tell them. You should stand up and let people know what you saw at the border."
So Mary Grace Geise, the girl most people know as quiet and reserved, stood up in the packed Bay United Methodist Church and described what she saw in the Arizona desert.
"It is as heartbreaking and complicated as you see on the news," she recalls saying, "and I want to pray for all those migrants, that they may find refuge here — because all human beings are deserving of a safe place."
"A father yelled, 'Yes!'" Jennie told me, beaming. "And then the entire church applauded."
"Mom," Mary Grace said, shaking her head, "I don't remember that."
She looked suddenly shy, but I thought about what else she had told me about that moment in church.
"I will do it again and again," she said, her voice calm and strong. "It's up to us young people on this issue. It's up to us to bring the light."
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Magnificat High School