WATERVILLE — As a mother and retired teacher, Mary Dunn could not just sit by and watch children being separated from their parents at the United States-Mexico border.

It was 2018 and Dunn had just retired from teaching school after 30 years. She was reading “Tell Me How it Ends, an Essay in Forty Questions,” by Valeria Luiselli. Luiselli is a translator who interviews undocumented Latin American children facing deportation.

“I remember reading this book and saying: ‘This has to be wrong. There’s no way we are doing this,'” Dunn said. “And we were. As a teacher, as a mother, it was the last straw. I could not even imagine. I started envisioning the scene of a young mother or nana, kids traumatized in their homes, their journeys to the U.S., showing up at the border looking for safety, and someone in a military uniform takes the kids away.”

Amelia Calder, 6, of Canaan, attaches wall putty to info panels Saturday while helping install the art exhibit “Uncaged Art, Tornillo’s Children’s Detention Camp” at the Waterville Brewing Co. in Waterville. The girl’s grandmother, Maureen Delahanty, is the co-coordinator of the exhibit and also helped with the installation. The exhibit opens this Saturday, Oct. 12.

Dunn, who for her last 10 years taught at Albert S. Hall School in Waterville, started doing online research about detention centers. She read about people who stood outside Tornillo, a detention center in Texas, holding signs and urging officials to free the children.

Tornillo eventually closed, but another center opened in Homestead, Florida, called the Homestead Temporary Influx Facility. Some of the Tornillo children were transferred there. Most of those children are now with families or sponsors, but some now live at Homestead, according to Dunn.

“No one knows what happened to the kids at Homestead,” Dunn said. “No one. Not U.S. congresswomen from south Florida, not human rights organizations. No one. Is this place still open? Yes, it is open. But there are no kids there. It is still staffed fully and we are spending millions a day on this place, which is in ‘warm’ status. In other words, ready for more kids anytime although since it sits on a superfund site. There are people trying to keep it from bringing kids back. I’m not making this stuff up.”

Dunn said she traveled to Homestead in July from her Oakland home to bear witness to the child detention facility that housed about 3,000 children. She also helped with travel arrangements for people going to the facility from all over the country to bear witness.

“It was an awful place — I could not wait to get out of there,” Dunn said. “Those poor kids. You saw a big, huge building on the edge of an air reserve base. It’s very institutional looking, with massive tents that kids ate in, did schooling in and some slept in them. There were also the barracks, long buildings where kids slept. You saw a lot of militarized personnel, Homeland Security, with all the gear they wear, walking around the place.”

“I saw children outside in the hot Florida sun — 90-plus degrees and incredibly high humidity — walking in straight lines from building to tent,” she said. “I saw children playing soccer. When I stood on the ladder and looked at them — these were teenage boys — it hit me that I was looking at children who were taken from their families.

“These were someone’s children, and they probably didn’t even know where they were. These were children who, according to their own accounts given to Amnesty International inspectors, say they cry at night and they hear others cry at night. I saw boys waving to us, yelling hello to us, making heart symbols with their hands at us. It was incredibly sad.”

Lisa Wheeler, left, and Mary Dunn install the art exhibit “Uncaged Art, Tornillo’s Children’s Detention Camp,” at the Waterville Brewing Co. last Saturday. The exhibit opens this Saturday, Oct. 12.

Other people stood as witnesses, day after day, because they believed so strongly that what was being done to the children was immoral, wrong and harmful, according to Dunn.

“They were some of the most moral people I have ever worked with,” she said.

Some employees there took care of the children, she said.

“I saw workers, desperate workers, taking this awful job because it’s a poor community and it was a job that would pay their bills and provide the much coveted health care coverage for their families,” Dunn said.

“Some workers shared their struggle taking such jobs. They need the money but know this was a bad place. Sad. Very very sad for all involved. That’s why communities like this, poor and minority, are chosen.”

Dunn has turned her convictions into action. She is organizing a traveling exhibit of artwork done by children at the Tornillo Detention Center in El Paso, Texas, to be displayed Oct. 12-26  at Waterville Brewing Co. at the Hathaway Creative Center at 10 Water St.

The exhibit itself is not of originals, but high-quality digital photos of the artwork, which reflects the children’s love for their home countries in Central America, and their experiences in the detention center. The photos are matted and framed, according to Dunn.

“The art comes from the University of Texas in El Paso,” she said. “It is high resolution digital images. They wouldn’t let us take the original work, for obvious reasons.”

Part of the art exhibit “Uncaged Art, Tornillo’s Children’s Detention Camp” is shown while being installed Saturday at the Waterville Brewing Co. in Waterville. The exhibit opens this Saturday, Oct. 12.

The traveling exhibit comes to Waterville from the Kent Street Coalition out of Concord, N.H. That organization raised funds for the effort. Dunn is the Maine representative. The exhibit, whose pieces are not for sale, will travel next to the University of Maine in Orono.

An opening reception for the exhibit, titled “Uncaged Art,” will be held from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the brewing company. A silent auction will also be held, with proceeds benefiting two organizations: Annunciation House, which provides humanitarian aid to asylum seekers when they are released from border patrol detention, and Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which provides free or low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugee children and families.

While money from the silent auction will go to Annunciation House and Refugee and Immigration Center for Education, other donations will go to smaller groups in dire need of funds, Dunn said.

“While the money will not go directly to the children whose art is hanging  — no one knows where those kids are — it will go to families and children in similar situations,” she said. “We are specifically targeting organizations that help those fleeing Central America.”

The opening will include a short, live performance by the Recycled Shakespeare Co., readings from Mainers who have witnessed at child detention centers, the auction and hors d’oeuvres. Beer may be purchased at the event.

“I hope this art exhibit begins some much needed realizations about this and the necessary conversations about how our community can work together to end the silence and the atrocities occurring along our southern border,” Dunn said.

Separating children from their families is no longer a governmental policy, but it is still happening, Dunn said.

“But it occurs infrequently because we are not even allowing people into the country unless they are Mexican nationals,” she said. “There are many, many thousands of people, families, children stuck in horrific conditions all along the southern border.

“This area is now considered one of the most dangerous in the world because of the targeting of those seeking asylum. They are being kidnapped, raped, murdered in unbelievable numbers. This is who we are now.”

Mary Dunn holds “The Passage,” a painting by Susan Smith of the University of Maine, who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border. The painting depicts a family’s passage across the border and into the United States.

Maureen Delahanty, of Canaan, has been working with Dunn to gather donations from businesses, artists and others for the silent auction. Delahanty, also a retired teacher, said she got involved in the fundraiser because she was moved by the situation and wanted to help. A friend told her about Dunn’s efforts and Delahanty contacted her. Knowing the artwork exhibit involved a huge undertaking, Delahanty took on the silent auction effort with help from another friend, Sonya Sharkey, also of Canaan.

“Mary and I are in the final push now and so excited for the opening on Oct. 12th,” Delahanty said. “I believe in my heart and soul that this is one of the worst crises this country has known.

“We — the United States — are committing brutal acts toward immigrant children and families. No person — no child — should ever be subjected to the treatment they are experiencing. I look at my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren and think, ‘No way.’ So, I guess part of me is doing this with them in mind.”

(Editor’s note: Maureen Delahanty is the sister-in-law of reporter Amy Calder.)

Auction items include the donation of three books by author Margy Burns Knight, who also will spend a whole day in schools talking about her books as part of her donation, for a total value of $800. The books are “Talking Walls,” a teacher’s guidebook for the book, and “We Belong Here.”

Other donations include artwork by Susan Smith, an art professor at the University of Maine, who also traveled to the border and whose associated artwork received the Juror’s Award from the Surface Design Association; a handmade baby quilt; a weaving; wine tasting package from Tree Spirits, of Oakland; cinema tickets; music CDs; a handspun wool collar; jewelry; artwork by Kathleen Perelka; gift cards from Maine Grains, the Miller’s Table, Boynton’s Greenhouse, The Bankery and Heritage House, all in Skowhegan; a cashmere scarf from Happy Knits, and more.

Dunn said she thinks people should attend the event to better understand the situation at the southern border and why people are fleeing their home countries.

“I think it’s important to come, to see that they didn’t leave because they hated home, and to become educated on the topic so we can contact our senators and representatives,” Dunn said. “They still, in my opinion, are dragging their feet and not being as vocal and assertive as they can be.”

 

Editor’s note: Maureen Delahanty is the sister-in-law of reporter Amy Calder.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.