A Women-Led Mission in Tennessee to Help Immigrants Hit Hard by the Pandemic

butterfly migrating

Photo Credit: Yulia/Pexels

More than a million immigrants arrive in the U.S. every year, with tens of thousands landing at the southern border in search of safety and prosperity as they flee violence and poverty in Central and South America.

Most arrive in California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas — the U.S. states that share a border with Mexico. From there, many immigrants — those documented in the immigration court system and those who are not — make their way to small cities and towns across the country.

“Butterflies migrate. They transform from caterpillars. They survive. They go looking for a better life and work hard to get it. So do immigrants.

In Memphis, Tennessee, Edith Ornelas, a Mexican-American activist and humanitarian, is doing her part to help these communities in need as they adjust to a new way of life.

For two years, Ornelas has led the Mariposas (“Butterflies”) Collective, a nonprofit that aims to help immigrant families that have been recently released from detention and are now seeking asylum. Since last year, the group’s mission has expanded to assist those who have lost work during the pandemic. Ornelas, an immigrant herself, drops off food and furniture, helps parents find jobs, and often lends an ear and emotional support during trying times.

Since 2018, when Ornelas launched her organization after encountering a growing community of new immigrants with few resources in Memphis, her group has blossomed to include more than 400 volunteers. They work in everything from kitchen-pantry food donation to legal aid — and even organizing ballet classes for immigrant kids and teens.

“This began with me just taking Ubers to the bus station where I saw new migrants being dropped off after leaving the detention center,” says Ornelas, who immigrated to Chicago when she was 7 with her parents and sister before moving to Memphis in 2016. “I would fill a big case with water, food, and snacks. It just got bigger from there.”

Feeding the Hungry

Most of the immigrants she encounters come from Central America — mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico — though those whom she assists also include South Americans and immigrants from elsewhere around the globe.

Since the onset of the pandemic — when many immigrants living in the U.S. without visas or permanent residency lost their jobs and were left ineligible for unemployment or federal stimulus payments — the work of Mariposas Collective has only grown.

“The biggest project in many ways has been food justice,” says Ornelas. “People are hungry and in need. We’ve served 4,000 families since the pandemic started. Every two weeks, there are 150 families that we provide with basic resources: baby formula, masa for tortillas, rice, lentils, and pinto beans.”

Mariposas Collective has also taken on several other projects in the last year. They include offering rent assistance to families, as well as helping parents secure cars and transportation to get to work and drop kids off at school. Recently, Ornelas partnered with the New Ballet Ensemble in Memphis to offer free ballet classes to a few dozen young immigrants.

“It may sound a little unusual, but it makes such sense,” says Ornelas. “These children become hopeful, more active, and more confident.”

Mariposas Collective works entirely off volunteer labor and donations, both from the local community and its main fiscal sponsor, the First Congregational Church of Memphis.

Butterflies Migrate, Too

“What Mariposas does lines up perfectly with our church and with the message of Christianity,” says Julia Hicks, the church’s director of mission. “We’re each supposed to be open to people different from us and from different places and help people in need however we can. That’s not just being a good neighbor, but it's also following the faith.”

“Mariposas shows selflessness and an awareness of the needs that are around us all every day,” says Hicks.

While the church and Mariposas Collective have worked together for several years to help local migrants, the needs of those communities have changed amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic decline.

“The biggest issues are evolving every week,” says Ornelas. “More people need help with housing, more people need help covering their bills. People simply need psychological support, too, and that falls to volunteers.”

Ornelas dreams that the group will one day grow to have a paid, professional staff and expand its programs far beyond basic needs to include career training for young women and offerings in the arts, a process that has begun in part with the ballet classes.

She says she chose the name “mariposas” to reflect such varied and nuanced ways of fulfilling the simple mission of helping newcomers to southwest Tennessee.

“Butterflies migrate,” says Ornelas. “They transform from caterpillars. They survive. They go looking for a better life and work hard to get it. So do immigrants.”


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