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By Jonel Martinez
On August 6, we drove up to the electronic gate in the 12-foot high, razor-wire fence that surrounds the Home for Women and Children. This is the shelter in Shiprock, New Mexico, for homeless Navajo women and their children who are victims of domestic violence. This facility is for victims—abused women and children—yet it looks like a prison. By the time the lump in my throat cleared and the tears in my eyes dried, the three truckloads of VVA and AVVA members had parked and we approached the door of the trailer office.

We were met by happy strangers. The female workers at the shelter greeted us with much kindness. They introduced themselves while the men unloaded the trucks. Then these women helped us separate and allocate hundreds of gift items. The gifts were placed in large plastic bags; on each bag was written the name of one of the children; then the bags were hidden in a side office.

Next, the personal hygiene bags and laundry baskets were filled with extra donations; then they, too, were hidden. We stuffed all of the backpacks with crayons, colored pencils, writing tablets, and other supplies appropriate for pre-school and early school-aged children; these also joined the secret presents. Had it not been for the help of the shelter workers, we would have spent hours just separating the many gifts. I regretted not having gifts for the staff to show them how much they were appreciated.

Two women had ordered ten pizzas for lunch. I caught Les Ryan at the door handing them a $100 bill, his own money. I stopped him. Reluctantly, he allowed AVVA Chapter 106 to pay for half of the pizzas.

A group of adorable, smiling children walked into the room. Each greeted us with a hello and a handshake. Some shared hugs with us. Real tight, glad-to-meet-you hugs. After everything they had been through in their young lives, they seemed untouched by the abuse that had brought them into this high-security shelter.
We watched the seven mothers lead their little ones to the table loaded with pizza, salad, and desserts. Plates filled quickly. Just before they began to eat, Grandma Klara offered a Navajo prayer. I didn’t understand a word, but I knew we all favored the same God. The children ate at a large round table.

We noticed that two mothers holding infants didn’t have plates. I asked if they would allow us to hold their babies. They quickly handed the babies to us, filled their plates, and went to another area to eat so they could have a real lunch break.
After lunch, the table was cleared. The women of the shelter sat with their infants at the table, and the eleven little ones sat on the carpet waiting, not knowing what was next. I’ve been helping people all of my life, and I can’t recall ever helping so many children at once. One of the advocates at the shelter brought out the large bags of presents. As soon as names were called out, one by one each child’s face lit up even brighter.

The children excitedly ripped open the bags. They held up the gifts and called to their moms. The mothers were pleased and thankful. A few children put on their backpacks and marched around the room singing, “I’m going to school!” Then the mothers were taken by surprise with full laundry baskets for their families.

We had been there nearly four hours. The children were due for naps and quiet time. The little ones lined up and wished us good-bye. We told them we loved them and we would see them again. The children gave us handmade thank-you cards decorated with their handprints. I was very proud of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America, Arizona, proud indeed.

AVVA Chapter 432 donated the backpacks with some school supplies and the laundry baskets with personal hygiene bags. The brownies were baked by Laura Bargfeld. Lynn and Bill Wesp donated clothing, books, action figures, cookies, and crackers. AVVA Chapter 106, with my husband Frank Martinez and myself, donated pre-K to second-grade supplies (colored pencils, crayons, and handwriting tablets), toys for all ages, books, art/crafts supplies, a pink sit-in toddler car, half of the pizza and beverages, cupcakes for the party, and staples for the shelter. AVVA 106 member Jade Brown donated twenty stuffed animals. Arizona AVVA donated seven $20 Walmart gift cards. Les Ryan donated stuffed animals, diapers, markers, handwriting tablets, coloring books, activity books, crayons, pencils and pens, paper, cases of food for the shelter, and half the cost of the pizza.

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