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It was just something that Charlie Rockwell could not get off his mind.

Rockwell, the Director of Facilities, Catholic Charities Housing/McCloskey Community Services, had just received an email about the need for volunteers to help with the migrant crisis in the bordertown of Laredo, Texas, some 2,080 miles from the Capital Region.

He was traveling to Oneonta and Cobleskill that day for work, but his thoughts kept drifting back to the email. 

“I found throughout my day I just couldn’t get the thought out of my head. Typically you get an email like that, you might see it and dismiss and forget about it,” Rockwell said. “It was just there and I thought about maybe responding to it. But I really didn’t think they would need what I do out there. I was thinking more along the lines of case management and data entry.”

Rockwell — who directly supervises the maintenance team in Albany and Oneonta, but is adept at all things housing from construction to management and contract negotiations — was so deep in thought that he nearly injured himself.

“After going to Oneonta, I got done with my meeting there, and in the back of my head was really distracted by this thing, and I ended up tripping and falling at the end of the sidewalk, I had mud and dirt all over me. And finally I said ‘I get it,’ ” Rockwell said. “So I sent the email and sure enough within the hour, they responded saying they could use me down there.”

“I like to think that I rule my day by being connected to the Holy Spirit, let it steer me in whatever direction I need to be. Of course, I don’t always necessarily respond in the way I should; the human side takes precedence.”

Rockwell may have been guided by the Holy Spirit but he still hadn’t talked to his wife, Marcella, yet.

“I figured I would have enough time to put it out there and see. And that wasn’t the case. And I was kind of in a bad spot because I had not checked with her first,” Rockwell said. “By about 8:30, 9 o’clock at night, I spoke to her on the phone and presented it to her and she was good. She was supportive of everything.” 

As were his colleagues in ­Albany. 

“There could probably not have been somebody who was more adept or more useful to them but Charlie,” said Sister Betsy Van Deusen, Director of Community Partnerships for the Diocese of Albany. “If you could have profiled who would have been most helpful there, Charlie Rockwell would have been that person, but we didn’t know that going in.” 

And neither did Rockwell. But after sending out his email Thursday, he left for Laredo on Sunday morning. After spending 11 hours in the Houston airport, he finally was at the border and ready for work. 

Rockwell is one of many men and women who work at Catholic Charities — there are over 60,000 strong in the United States — who volunteer to help the other 167 member organizations in need. The volunteers still get paid their salary, with Catholic Charities USA paying for their airfare, lodging and a per diem. 

“For many years, Catholic Charities USA, when a particular agency has a struggle, it started with (Hurricane) Katrina, they put out to member agencies … ‘We need help,’ ” Sister Betsy said. “This organization, this affiliate needs assistance and so because of the huge influx in Laredo, they were just strapped.” 

It’s all part of the organization’s core tenants.

“The seven principles of Catholic social teaching say that we have to have an option for the poor and vulnerable; life and dignity of the human person,” Sister Betsy said. “These people are people, they are brothers and sisters, whether they have a different color skin, they are our brothers and sisters and so by virtue of that, we are called to be in relationship with them and to be of assistance to them.” 

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Laredo is on the north bank of the Rio Grande, hard by the U.S.-Mexico border; a literal stone’s throw from Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. There is a vibrant trade between the two cities, as well as tourism.

“The community down there … they were highly stressed because there was talk of shutting the border down and a good number of people that live in Laredo base their income on import and export,” said Rockwell. “It’s a huge thing when you start talking about closing the border down, you are impacting a lot of people.”

And then there are the immigrants and asylum seekers, coming into the country by the hundreds. The plan was to have Catholic Charities house them for a day or two, Rockwell said, then send them off to relatives or sponsors in the states. But first they needed to find a place. 

This is where Rockwell’s expertise came in handy. Rockwell, along with Kristan Schlichte, Senior Director of Membership at Catholic Charities USA, Ben de la Garza, director of Catholic Charities in Laredo and Bishop James A. Tamayo of the Diocese of Laredo, toured a diocesan property that had been used as as domestic violence shelter. 

The only problem was the property, vacant for nearly six months, needed a complete overhaul; the air-conditioning, electrical, safety signs, alarm system and hot water needed to be fixed and brought up to code.  

“I found myself more in a repair mode as opposed to anything else. They were concerned about safety and whether or not it could work,” said Rockwell, who has worked in law enforcement with the Colonie and Stillwater police departments, the U.S. Department of Justice and is also a licensed master plumber. “I commented if I had this building in this campus in Albany what we could do would be amazing. So I worked on that, had to borrow some tools, very basic tools to get the work done.”

Schlichte said one person could have made the shelter a possibility.

“This diocese is a very small. (The) Catholic Charities agency is on the edge of the border there and they are very impacted and Charlie helped make the shelter happen,” Schlichte said. “He basically created the shelter from a vacant building and nobody could have done what Charlie did because of the skills that he had. Nobody.”

Schlichte was so impressed with Rockwell she sent an immediate email to Sister Betsy.

“Who knew that Charlie’s expertise in construction and law enforcement would help Bishop Tamayo and his team to reexamine the immediate use of a diocesan vacant property as a temporary migrant shelter that might eventually be considered for a Healthy Housing project,” the email read.  “Lots more to discuss and explore but this happened on Charlie’s first full day here.  He’s staying for two weeks.  He could be King of Laredo by then!”

Rockwell, along with other volunteers, worked all of the first week and into the Wednesday of the second week to get the building ready. It was no vacation.

“You worked till you got done what you were doing or you couldn’t work any more,” he said. “Some days I got done so late the restaurant was closed so I learned pretty quickly to have some apples or something in my refrigerator in the hotel so I could just eat a little something.”

With the building ready, the migrants, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, started arriving. Rockwell said immigrants, after they were cleared criminally by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and held for as long as they could by statue, were put on a bus and driven to a bus station in the United States and dropped off. 

“We would go down when we knew they would be there because ICE would work with Catholic Charities; contact us and tell us that we are going to the bus station and we have a bus load of 100 and then we would go there,” Rockwell said. “Charities would only bring in the moms with children, families or dads with young children. They wouldn’t take the single males or the teenage males because there is too much of a risk of criminality going on where they’re not who they say they are.”

From there, the immigrants would have a relative or someone sponsor them, get them to send money for a bus ticket and they would be sent on their way. Catholic Charities of Laredo has helped over 3,000 immigrant families and individuals released from detention centers or who find themselves in need. 

After working to get the facility ready, Rockwell had a chance to see the impact on people who were trying to find a better life in the States.
“The one night after I had gotten done with whatever repair work I was doing, the other volunteers were busy handing out clothing and I decided to help out handing out pizza and to see a family, a mom and dad and two kids, sitting down for a slice of pizza and a water and to them it was the greatest thing because they hadn’t eaten in a while. And we take for granted going to a restaurant and dropping $200 bucks like it’s nothing,” Rockwell said. “Regardless of your politics, we are human beings and so if you can’t see that …

“ … The farther you got away, the more watered down the story was and you are not getting the actual news and you are not seeing the impact. It’s easy when you are on the good side of the fence to say, ‘Hey, stay out!’ I am all for the security of country but personally for me, I was moved by the whole situation.”

And it was an experience he would recommend in a second.

“I would absolutely encourage it. For me, I was stepping outside my comfort zone,” Rockwell said, “but again the Holy Spirit gave me that reassurance that it’s going to be alright. For anybody that has any doubts, give it up to God and go for it.”