The chairman of the Mashpee Board of Selectmen, John J. Cotton, called in to the board’s virtual meeting on March 22 from more than 1,000 miles away. He was in Texas, where he was volunteering with American Red Cross humanitarian efforts.
At the meeting, Mr. Cotton mentioned only that he was “out of state.” However, reached by phone as he waited to board his return flight from Texas on Wednesday, March 31, the selectman described a life-changing experience working with migrant children for almost two weeks.
“In a crazy way, the two weeks seem like two months because you feel such a strong bond with these kids,” Mr. Cotton said. “It is my first deployment, but it definitely won’t be my last.”
Mr. Cotton said he has become increasingly involved with the Red Cross ever since his wife, Barbara Cotton, became the executive director of the Massachusetts branch of the organization last year. Volunteers make up about 90 percent of the Red Cross workforce.
In addition to donating blood on a regular basis, Mr. Cotton completed online training to become a disaster volunteer and intended to deploy with his son, who also completed the training.
“Me and my son did this [training] side by side,” Mr. Cotton said, noting however that his son was unable to deploy to with him because he was attending Assumption College. “I really wish he could have experienced this.”
For months after completing the training, Mr. Cotton notified the Red Cross of swaths of time that he could be available for deployment. He received the okay from his employer, First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union, to ship out for volunteer work with less than 24 hours’ notice.
Then, on the evening of March 17, the Red Cross called seeking volunteers like Mr. Cotton to deploy to Texas.
“They said, ‘Can you be there tomorrow morning?’” Mr. Cotton said. “I said I could come Friday.”
After flying into Dallas on March 19, Mr. Cotton awoke at 5:30 AM each day to provide humanitarian services to migrant children who had crossed the US border with Mexico without an adult present.
“These are kids with no parental or guardianship, so we were acting as their guardians, counselors or caretakers throughout this process,” he said. “We tried to keep structure—just so many kids—I wasn’t able to watch the news to see what was going on.”
The influx in children who are crossing the border on their own and then being held in border facilities has made national news in recent weeks. Days before Mr. Cotton deployed with the Red Cross, the Biden administration directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist in processing the increased number of children and teenagers at the border.
Mr. Cotton said that as a Red Cross volunteer he provided humanitarian support for FEMA but said that due to the political sensitivity of the situation, volunteers had been advised not to disclose the location of the facility where they worked.
“In my opinion, it doesn’t matter your stance on whether they should have been allowed [to cross the border] or not; the fact is they’re here and they’re kids,” Mr. Cotton said. “Taking out the political situation—you know, border open, border closed—whatever the situation is, the kids are here and now we need to do the right thing.”
At the facility where he worked with migrant boys until about 7:30 each night, Mr. Cotton and other Red Cross volunteers helped coordinate meals and medical attention, engaged the boys in activities such as tossing a basketball or playing board games and cards, and provided basic instruction in English.
“One thing I could tell you is that they are just incredibly respectful, just honored to have this opportunity,” Mr. Cotton said of the children he worked with. “What process lies ahead of them? I have no idea of the hurdles they still have to go through.”
At first, Mr. Cotton, who does not speak Spanish, found it challenging to communicate with the boys at the facility, most of whom did not speak much English.
Despite the language barrier, Mr. Cotton said he had “lots of heartfelt, deep conversations” and found that the children’s “desire to learn English for this opportunity in life was so insanely passionate.”
The children recognized the Red Cross insignia that Mr. Cotton and other volunteers wore and felt comfortable opening up to the volunteers, he said.
“Hey, it’s not going to be easy, keep your chin up,” Mr. Cotton said he told the boys, who would often respond by pounding their fist over their heart.
Mr. Cotton said the hundreds of boys he interacted with daily came from countries throughout Central America, including Ecuador, Honduras and El Salvador.
“Some of the stories of these kids, they would just make you cry,” he said.
An assistant scoutmaster for the local Boy Scout troop in Mashpee, Mr. Cotton reflected on steep challenges faced by the boys he interacted with at the border.
“I think about it from a Boy Scout perspective, [children] go to camp and they’re away from their parents for six days; these kids could be away from their parents for forever,” he said. “The appreciation of what we have—that part is probably a little bit overwhelming—because we have everything and they...have so little.”
With the help of the Red Cross volunteers, the boys at the facility “were definitely cared for” and received clothing, food and attention, Mr. Cotton said. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, masks were worn at all times.
“I experienced so many new things; maybe they gave more to me than I gave to them in a weird way because their appreciation for us being there was just so over-the-top,” he said.
Veteran volunteers with the Red Cross who had done multiple deployments told Mr. Cotton “this was one of the most difficult deployments, but one of the most rewarding for sure.
“I’d do it again if I could,” he said.