I am undocumented and proud,” Cassandra Nuñez declared as she accepted the Volunteer of the Year Award at the annual JFON Conference, held this year at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.
At any of our 15 sites across the country, the many wonderful and hard-working volunteers are indispensable to the JFON mission. Our work, our existence, would not be possible without them. But Cassandra was chosen as an example of the amazing difference a single volunteer can make to the overall success of a JFON site.
At JFON Houston, Cassandra works as an interpreter during complicated and difficult consultations. She translates documents, even taking it upon herself to develop new brochures for JFON Houston in Spanish and English. She spends hours and hours sitting with clients, listening to their stories, reviewing their documents checklists and assisting them with their applications.
Most importantly, Cassandra never forgets that the people she meets at JFON clinics aren’t just clients. They are neighbors. They are friends.
“One night after working with a client,” attorney Joy Green remembers, “Cassandra learned that the client—a mother with a small toddler and a victim of sexual trauma and domestic violence in her home country– had a two-hour bus ride ahead of her to get back home on a rainy night.”
Cassandra, of course, insisted on giving both mother and child a ride home.
“Her warm and loving personality,” Joy adds, “has helped this client and so many others feel safe and welcome at JFON.”
Undocumented and Unafraid
There is no doubt that Cassandra has a special understanding of the struggles of many of the JFON clients in Houston. She understands these struggles because she has lived them. Cassandra’s family arrived in this country just in time for her ninth birthday.
“I’ve spent most of my life in hiding,” she says. “It’s just something we were told ever since we got here—we can’t do this, we can’t go here, you can’t go on field trips.” Cassandra vividly remembers missing out on one field trip to the state capitol in Austin because her parents were afraid there might be border check-points and she would be taken off the bus and deported
“We lived in fear,” Cassandra says simply. “Always we lived with that fear.”
As a DACA recipient, Cassandra became an active volunteer with United We Dream. “They helped me gain my pride,” she remembers. She realized that she possessed important and useful abilities; being equally comfortable in two cultures and two languages among them. Yet there is something more about Cassandra—she has a rare gift for empathy; the ability to truly connect to people, to understand their personal history and celebrate their culture. She has put this talent to excellent use at JFON Houston.
Cassandra is currently a senior at the University of Houston, majoring in Human Development and Family Studies. She is also a lay pastor at Galena Park United Methodist Church, a calling she shares with her husband. Cassandra’s “20-year plan” includes a Master’s of Divinity with the goal of becoming a hospital chaplain.
If you want to help people—any group of people—don’t stop at volunteering. Become their friend.
“Building friendships changes lives dramatically,” explains Cassandra. “So when they came to deport Maria, they didn’t just deport Maria from Houston. They deported your friend Maria. That hurts, because you really enjoyed having coffee and empanadas with her. You think, ‘What can I do to get her back?’ That mobilizes you, because it’s coming from someplace real. It’s not superficial; it’s not some savior complex where you are coming to save someone on a white horse. It hurts to lose a friend. It hurts to see her children left behind and her family destroyed.”
We know that the people we serve are our neighbors. But Cassandra reminds us that they also need to be our friends.