More than a century ago, the Sisters of Mercy paid $7,500 for 120 acres of farmland in Syosset so they could build an orphanage.
Today, the home still has ties to the religious order and is still providing shelter to the young. And it now takes migrant children, too — both those who come alone and those whose parents were arrested on charges of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
The shelter has had an agreement with the federal government since 2014 to care for unaccompanied minors. The migrant children separated from their parents arrived about a month ago.
In all, more than 2,300 migrant children have been separated from their parents since the Trump administration instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy on parents entering the United States illegally with their children. The president reversed his family separation order Wednesday.
Now, MercyFirst is grappling with how long it will be before the children will be reunited with their parents.
Shifts in federal policy made often and quickly have caused confusion, said Gerard McCaffery, president and CEO of MercyFirst.
“What does that mean for the kids that we have with us? How quickly can they be reconnected with their parents?” McCaffery said. “I don’t know the answers to those yet.”
The children come from Central American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and range in age from 6 to 12.
“The young kids are very shy and they’re scared,” McCaffery said. “It’s the older kids you can come up to and they bump fists with you.”
MercyFirst has taken in some 500 unaccompanied minors in the past four years, McCaffrey said. They usually stay six to eight weeks before they are placed with relatives in the United States.
Just as they do with unaccompanied minors, MercyFirst staff members are working to connect the new arrivals their parents by telephone or Skype, McCaffery said. Officials from the New York consulates of their home countries visit the campus and are doing what they can to reconnect the families.
“These immigrant kids is kind of what we have been doing for 100 years plus,” McCaffery said, referring to the center’s 1894 founding.
Working with migrants is “one of the priorities of the Sisters of Mercy. . . . I think it’s a great fit,” he said.
Sister Sheila Browne sees MercyFirst’s work, including with the migrant children, as fulfilling the vision of the nun who founded the order, Sister Catherine McAuley.
“This is the work she would be doing if she were standing here right now, and I am sure her spirit is in this building,” said Browne, who is a member of MercyFirst’s board of trustees. “I think it is wonderful.”
Over the decades, the order’s work grew. Today, the MercyFirst network has 15 locations, including group homes and mother-child residences in Nassau, Suffolk, Queens and Brooklyn. A staff of 600 oversees the care of about 570 children on a daily basis, including about 350 in licensed foster care homes. The annual operating budget stands at $48 million, with the bulk of the money coming from the federal government.
Many of the 116 children who live on the Syosset campus come from Brooklyn and Queens as well as Long Island. They have been abused, neglected or have other troubles.
“These kids have been through more in a short lifetime than adults have been through sometimes in their entire life,” McCaffery said.
On Thursday night, MercyFirst held its 10th annual scholarship dinner at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, honoring 23 MercyFirst children who have emerged from troubled childhoods to make it to college or vocational training school. They are attending schools including Binghamton University, Stony Brook University and Hunter College.
Last fall, Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, came to the Syosset campus to learn about its art therapy program, a field she has been interested in for years. She had planned a two-hour visit. She stayed four hours.
The origin of the visit was a project the residents had done, making postcard-size paintings with positive messages that they sent to children who had fled the civil war in Syria and were living in a refugee camp in Turkey, McCaffery said.
To the amazement of the MercyFirst residents, the Syrian children not only received the artwork, but responded — sending their own small pieces of artwork back thanking the residents.
“Our kids were just kind of blown away by it,” McCaffery said.
The MercyFirst project ended up on display at the United Nations, where Pence learned that it had been done by MercyFirst. She asked to visit the center.
When she came, she did an art project with the residents. They painted birds together — the MercyFirst symbol of two doves, which represent parent and child, and a cardinal, the state bird of Indiana, where Pence had been first lady when her husband, Mike Pence, was governor.
The montage was the idea of the residents, McCaffery said.
“It was just really very moving,” he said. “There was nothing political about it.”
Today, the montage — painted on a white tile — graces the ceiling in a school hallway along with dozens of other artworks by the residents.
For math teacher Danielle DeFranco, MercyFirst is helping the children succeed across the board. She knew she wanted to teach at the campus from the moment she visited six years ago.
“It’s a beautiful place to work,” she said. “And I want to work here until I retire.”