migrant children drawing
The children from Mexico who were separated from their parents at the border made this during their stay at the Holy Family Institute for their donors here in Pittsburgh.

In the last month, Sister Linda Yankoski has been called a hero. She has also been compared to Hitler.

Sister Linda is a nun and the CEO of Holy Family Institute, a nonprofit social services organization located in a bucolic setting in Emsworth that provides help to children and families in the region. She has been with the center since 1975, is very active in the community and has received numerous accolades along the way, including a Champion for Children award.

Back in June, life got more complicated for Sister Linda, when it became known that Holy Family Institute was housing children who were separated from their parents at the Mexico–United States border.

As if she was responsible for their separation, she says. As if she was part of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy that led to their being there.

“We do not agree with the policy,” she says firmly. “We never did. Parents we were able to get these kids connected to so quickly were grateful that they were in a safe and nurturing environment. If a young child can tell a parent what I had for dinner today or what I learned in school … ”

Despite speculation that the group of migrant children would be there a long time and perhaps might never even see their parents again, there’s good news to report.

“All the children who have been separated will be reunited by the end of the month (July),” she says. And they seem to be doing okay.

“They’re doing as well as can be expected given the situation they’re in. We’re offering comfort and appropriate physical care for all of our kids.”

While most people think housing migrant children is something new at Holy Family Institute, they have in fact been taking in kids officially since 2014 when they signed a shelter contract with the U.S. government to provide refuge for unaccompanied minors caught crossing the Mexican border.

“It really started back in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti,” she notes. “We took 18 kids from Children’s Hospital (of Pittsburgh) without adoption papers and kept them until they were all adopted.”

Typically, Holy Family hosts up to 50 migrant kids at any given time. Due to policy, she cannot say how many came from the recent parent/child separation at the border. Nor can she say how many have already been reunited, although some have.

More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents at the border during the zero-tolerance period that was curtailed recently by court order. Holy Family Institute is the only place in Pittsburgh offering shelter for some of these children. Others are spread out in centers throughout the U.S.

It’s a much different environment at Holy Family than any of these kids — coming from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries — are used to.

“They’re making friends,” says Sister Linda. “It’s a totally different experience for them. I’m hoping that when they leave here they will leave with a happy memory we create with them: We were separated but we were well cared for.”

The boys and girls have breakfast, go to school, enjoy playtime, break for lunch. “We read books to them, they play, go swimming — what we’ve done for 100 years for any kid,” she emphasizes. “It’s no different for these kids.”

Except these kids don’t speak English and they need teachers and others who speak Spanish, which Holy Family provides. And the goal for these kids is to get them to leave as soon as possible.

In the meantime, they have all had phone contact with their parents, some more often than others.

“As often as they can,” Sister Linda notes. “If the parents have access, our kids have access to them anytime the parents are available. If the parent calls, we grab the kids.”

She suggests you think of it as a domestic shelter where information is closely guarded for the safety of the kids. “We’re supposed to be like a domestic child care center. A lot of kids are trafficked and they come to this country. These shelters are set up to protect the kids.”

No one, including media, is allowed to visit unless they have gone through government clearance which can take weeks. (Conor Lamb, U.S. Congressman from Western Pennsylvania, recently visited the kids after going through these channels.)

And in reuniting these kids and others throughout the years, the government must make sure the parents “are really a parent,” says Sister Linda.

As for their departure, they won’t leave alone.

“Our team will accompany their children to the next step,” she says. Who goes with them? “Their case managers, their counselors, folks they have known since they’ve been here.”

When asked how the kids are and if any seem still traumatized, she again stresses that they seemed to be doing fine under the circumstances but adds, “In my mind, the trauma doesn’t end until they’re reunited.”

The boys and girls are separated at the school for study and in dorms, which is the same for all the kids at Holy Family, but they see each other at lunch and in common areas and opposite-sex siblings are in touch daily.

Donations for the kids came pouring in when an article was published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly after their arrival — from toys and games to books and gift cards, as well as checks.

And yes, they’re still accepting donations. “The best way is to make the contribution to the Holy Family general fund to support all the programs. I’ve got kids in programs who are just as needy and they’re not going to leave,” emphasizes Sister Linda. “We care for a lot of kids in this country, not just these kids.”

Holy Family provides a wide range of services to help children and families, from mental health counseling to specialized learning to drug and alcohol counseling. They serve thousands of children and families each year in multiple locations in Allegheny, Beaver and Armstrong County.

It’s the kind of work that typically merits praise, not the criticism she has been subjected to recently.

“I’ve been compared to Hitler,” she admits. “I got a lot of criticism over this. Some see us as being an extension of Trump’s policy. What Trump did was abusive.

“These kids are (either) in a safe and warm and loving environment at Holy Family or in those chain-linked fenced rooms, which in my mind wasn’t the best option. I feel more like the family who took in Anne Frank as opposed to Hitler.

“If you could see them it would warm your heart,” she says with a smile. “To tell you the truth, I will miss them to death.”

Tracy Certo

Tracy is the founder and Editor at Large of NEXTpittsburgh which she started in March 2014 and sold in December 2020. She is passionate about making Pittsburgh a better place for all and connecting people...