Alone in America: An Undocumented Child’s Journey from Solitude to Solidarity

Posted on September 4, 2018
The Story of a Child of Deported Immigrants Crossing Paths With a Middle Class Suburban Couple Frustrated With Their Faith

Torn Apart and Left Alone

One chilly December day after school in 2004, Juan Terrazas walked through the front door of his home in Dallas, Texas, and found his sister Alma and cousins huddled together on the couch.

“Your dad’s in jail,” they told him. Their voices were grave.

The 14-year-old boy smiled. “I thought they were joking ’cause they tried to play a joke on me like that before,” he said. They knew Juan looked up to his dad, who migrated to the United States from Mexico in 1995 and worked hard to take care of his family. He always pushed Juan to become a better man.

Juan noticed the tears streaming down Alma’s cheeks. He looked from face to face. He saw the seriousness in their demeanor. And that’s when he realized — as a stone formed in his stomach — this was for real.

His dad wasn’t coming home.

Juan had never understood why his parents had always been harsh with him when he and his friends acted like the rowdy pre-teenagers they were, getting into trouble, until now.

The confrontations in the kitchen, “What are you doing? Why are you trying to get in trouble? Do you want us to get caught?” — they all made sense now. He shuddered.

The night before Juan’s father was deported was a normal night. He had gone out with some friends despite the pleading of Juan’s mother to stay home.

“We woke up the next day, and he hadn’t come back,” remembered Juan. When Juan came home from school and heard the news from his crying sister and cousins and saw the worry in his mom’s face, he knew something had happened.

One of his last memories of his father is of him standing in an orange jumpsuit during one of their final visits. He looked at Juan through the glass window while he sat on his chair across from him. “You’re the man of the house now,” he looked his son in the eyes. “I want you to take care of the family.”

After a month of sleepless, tearful nights, Juan’s mother returned to Mexico to be with her husband and care for her dying father. She left her children in America knowing they would probably have a better future with more opportunity if they stayed behind.

Juan and Alma were left in America, alone.

“Alma and I lived with our cousin after our father’s deportation, but without any immediate family, that situation didn’t last long, and Alma and I soon had to fend for ourselves. Essentially homeless, we bounced around from place to place and hoped that someone would be kind enough to bring us into their family.”

“Three miles changed our lives forever.”

About the same time in 2007, Jim and Melinda Hollandsworth, a middle-aged husband and wife who lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, volunteered to deliver Christmas gifts to a primarily Hispanic mobile home park three miles down the road.

“Those three miles changed our lives forever,” said Jim.

Just before they delivered the gifts, Jim and Melinda had been going through a faith crisis. They were questioning if their typical middle class suburban way of Christian life was what it should be. “We were like, alright, this can’t be all there is,” said Jim. “There wasn’t this fulfillment on this journey.”

When the Hollandsworths entered the mobile home park called Gwinnett Estates in Loganville, Georgia, they met a family of first and second generation immigrants from Mexico. Having been to Latin America before, Jim and Melinda struggled in broken Spanish to distribute the gifts and spend time with the kids. The experience wasn’t perfect, but it sparked a genuine relationship that day.

“We recognized that there’s a whole different world and community in our backyard,” said Jim.

Despite the unfamiliarity of the mobile home park just down the street from their home, the Hollandsworths kept going back. They felt alive.

Off the Path

One Friday, they were sitting in the living room of the Ramirez family, surrounded by kids, and sharing a warm soda and toast, a snack that Mrs. Ramirez had served them.

Two older kids in the family, Jose and Maria, shared what they wanted to be when they got older. They said they wanted to help kids who grew up as immigrants in the US, similar to their story. At the same time, they told the Hollandsworths about their older brothers and sisters, who had already spent time in jail, been deported, had babies, and not graduated from high school.

“Then the younger kids were sitting all by me on the couch,” said Melinda, “And one of them says I want to show you my Friday folder, and as a teacher, I love to see Friday folders. You know, all the work that came home from the week,” she smiled.

“And so they go get their folders and bring them back to me. And when they do, I open it up and realize they’re already failing everything in school,” said Melinda. “Their conduct grade is not good, their effort grade was not good, and the older siblings had already dropped out of high school, so the kids who were in middle school had these big hopes and dreams for their lives, but they didn’t have a role model to look up to who had done that.”

Looking at their grades and their school performance, Melinda, as a teacher, saw they were already off the path towards reaching their hopes and dreams for their future.

“I remember looking at Jim with panic, because it was just terrifying. I didn’t want that reality to be true for anyone.”

Maybe It’s Us

They got in the car that day and as they sat there, Jim looked at Melinda.

“We either choose to do something, or we leave and we never come back,” he said.

“As much as it was a terrifying moment for us,” Melinda said, “it was also the moment where we said, ‘Okay. We’re in.’”

At the time, “we’re in” meant finding the organization that was already working in the neighborhood. They were going to be volunteers. “It just didn’t seem like there could be a need that was this obvious so close to affluence and people with resources without it being addressed.”

So they spent roughly six months making phone calls, Googling, trying to find the people who were doing the work in the neighborhood.

“We kept coming up empty,” said Melinda. “We would find a church here, a church there, but everyone would eventually say ‘it got too hard and so we quit going.’ Or ‘yeah, there was somebody who used to do work here, but they stopped a few years ago. I remember there was one day that we finally said, ‘Well, maybe it’s us.’ But we had no idea what that meant.”

Juan’s Transformation

Floating from home to home in Texas, Juan and Alma never felt like they belonged anywhere. “Everything was against us — no parents, undocumented, increasing isolation, unwanted feelings. I was ready to give up,” he said.

The internal devastation festered in Juan to the point of contemplating suicide. With the intervention of a few key mentors who didn’t see him as a problem, but as a person with uncapped potential and dignity, Juan grew in faith, character, and aspirations.

Both Juan and Alma graduated from high school and earned associate degrees from El Centro Community College.

During his time at school, Juan observed something about his life.

He saw how, when he told his story, it brought the fire of life back into the eyes of others who had similar stories.

His story brought hope to other teenagers who were also felt stuck or abandoned due to their parents being deported.

“I see myself in those kids,” he said. “I know because I’ve been through it. But where you come from does not determine where you are going.”

Juan’s passion for caring for impoverished and undocumented kids led to his book called “Left In America” written with Sally Salas, and he began speaking around the country.

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How Paths Crossed

One day, he spoke in front of a gathering of politicians and influencers in Washington DC, and Jim Hollandsworth was in the audience.

“The first time I ever saw Juan speak, he was talking to a room full of evangelical leaders from Georgia and staffers for Senator Isakson. And he was just crushing it,” said Jim Hollandsworth, who was visiting for the same reason. “Juan was so eloquent in sharing his personal story, but also why he believed that as faith leaders we were called to speak out on behalf of our friends and neighbors.”

Jim caught up with Juan later that day.

“We’ve been praying about a young guy like you to come and work with us because the kids that we work with, they need someone like you in their life,” he told Juan.

Juan listened as Jim continued.

“As much as my wife Melinda or myself have been able to build relationships and help kids, we can never say, hey, I know what it’s like to walk in your shoes. But since I heard your story and heard your heart, I had to tell you about the Path Project.”

The effort that Jim and Melinda had started sitting at the stop sign in 2008 had grown into a staff of 24 with a full range of programs that served 625 children and youth across multiple communities.

Jim and Melinda had executed on their vision by founding the Path Project to help kids, predominantly growing up in mobile home parks, graduate from high school and find a path to fulfill their God-given potential. In 2016, 88 percent of Path Project’s participants graduated from high school with a college or career plan in place — compared to 33 percent of the kids living in the same neighborhood.

Juan immediately said to Jim, “I feel like God has created me to invest in other people, to invest in younger people like me.”

In 2018, Juan joined the Path Project as a staff member.

“Juan is my hero,” said Jim. “He’s a hero to so many people because he has overcome things in his life and God has given him this opportunity and now he is growing and leaning into this idea of investing in younger people. I’m excited about his potential.”

“As he begins to tell his stories, you see kids gather around.” said Melinda. “When it comes from him, it is, ‘I can do this. I know where you are. I know what you’re life is like, and if I can do it, so can you.’

In 2018, the Chick-fil-A Foundation selected the Path Project as the 2018 True Inspiration Awards S. Truett Cathy Honoree and surprised the Hollandsworths with a $100,000 check for the Path Project. The funds will be used to expand the program and reach more kids.

”We’re seeing life change happen and we’re seeing that different people can work together for the same goal,” said Jim.

The Power of Being Present

The lesson that Juan, Jim, and Melinda have learned over the last ten years is that the single most important factor in impacting someone’s life is being present.

“If you want to make an impact in someone’s life, you can’t underestimate the power of just showing up and being present. We say that to people all the time. They ask, ‘Hey, what do you guys do at the path project’” And they’re expecting this long drawn out strategic plan of these intense programs and tutoring. But we believe in the value of showing up and building relationships and being present.”

Juan continues to share his story, challenging both documented and undocumented students to complete their schooling. Whenever he speaks, he reinforces that education is the way out of poverty and the path to success in America. He’s currently finishing his bachelor’s degree online at University of Texas of the Permian Basin.

Jim and Melinda no longer feel a restless crisis in their faith journey. They no longer experience the empty mundanity, but rather soak in the meaningfulness of every life they impact.

“If we give ourselves to others, if we lay down some of our lives, and we leverage some of our sacrifice for those who are our neighbors, it creates meaningful relationships,” said Jim. “It creates opportunity for things to happen that would never happen by living in a safe little bubble.”