Volunteering as a Child Advocate to Give Back to My Immigrant Community

Julia Ponce, May 2019

My name is Julia Ponce. I’m an immigrant and a volunteer Child Advocate with the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in New York.

I was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, and lived there until I was 10 years old. My family and I fled the bloody Salvadoran Civil War, which left 75,000 people dead, in 1988. What I remember from my childhood in San Salvador is hearing helicopters at night, looking at the gory pictures on the front of newspapers, and my father being kidnapped for ransom in 1986 by the guerillas. I remember feeling scared and not safe because of what was going on and what I could understand at that time.

When we came to the United States, we first moved to Huntington Station, and eventually settled in Long Island. Leaving my friends and relatives in San Salvador felt awful, because I did not know if I would see them again, but I used every opportunity to grow. I went to William Smith College in Geneva and attended Hofstra Law in Hempstead, both in New York. For the last twelve years, I’ve worked for different non-profits to advance worker rights globally, promote corporate social responsibility, improve labor conditions throughout Central America, and advocate for immigration reform, and I will soon practice immigration law. I am also a DJ, which I love, and started doing college radio twenty-two years ago.

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I spend a lot of my time volunteering because I think it’s important to give back. As a law graduate, I volunteered for The Legal Aid Society’s Youth Project of their Immigration Law Unit and for the legal department at the Advocacy Center of Queens County. What makes volunteering as a Young Center Child Advocate special is that it gives you the opportunity to be there for a child and bring them joy under what can be very dire circumstances.

I decided to get involved with the Young Center because after the surge in family separations, I felt compelled to give back. I wanted to help fight for the impacted children, many of whom came from El Salvador. I know what it is like to have to leave your home one day and come to a new country with a different language the next.

I will never forget my first meeting with the child whose case was assigned to me. I met him for five minutes after an initial meeting with the child’s case worker, clinician, and the Young Center case supervisor. We were in a small office. He was shy, sweet, and soft spoken. I told him my name and that I would be coming to visit with him weekly to get to know him and his story. I asked him about his favorite comics and superheroes. He looked younger than his age and we talked a bit about where he was staying. I looked forward to my weekly visits with him ever since.

We developed a strong bond because I visited him every week and remembered what he told me in previous visits. I learned about his favorite color, superhero, animal, and singer. We colored books of his favorite superheroes together. I read stories and comic books to him in Spanish. We also played Jenga and drew pictures. We talked about his life here, what he wanted to do when he gets older, how he felt about being away from his family and what he missed the most. I asked him what his days were like and how things were going in his foster home and in school. I wished I could play music for him, but we were not allowed any electronic devices during our visits.

Sometimes being a Child Advocate can be challenging. It’s particularly hard not being able to tell the child how long they will be in federal custody or when they will be able to talk to their parents. They ask us these questions every time we meet. We’re also not allowed to give them gifts, which I understand—not every child in the facility has a Child Advocate. Finding the right way to comfort them amid what could be an experience that impacts their life forever can feel like an enormous responsibility.

Despite the challenges, having the opportunity to advocate for an unaccompanied child, to sit with them and console them, and to let them know that they are not alone is rewarding beyond words. I’m so grateful to everyone who supports the work of the Young Center, which makes these opportunities possible.

Click here to support the Young Center’s work with volunteer Child Advocates like Julia around the country.

Maddie Witters