For migrant children in Long Beach, love and encouragement were among the services provided by UCLA Health

‘Giving them that safe environment and that time to rest — that’s what we really tried to accomplish,’ says Administrative Director William Dunne

When UCLA Health was tabbed to provide services at a federally sponsored shelter for migrant children arriving in the United States without their parents, administrators considered it a humanitarian medical mission.

But it soon became clear the work was about much more than medicine.

“Very quickly we learned that the majority of the children were relatively healthy,” says William Dunne, administrative director for emergency preparedness, security and safety at UCLA Health.

“But the journey they had undertaken and traumas they had experienced before getting to the door of that shelter, it became: How can we, as a team, make sure that, while they’re in our care, they get as much compassion and love and encouragement as possible?”

William Dunne, administrative director for emergency preparedness, security and safety at UCLA Health.

The emergency intake site at the Long Beach Convention Center, which closed July 23 after about three months of operation, cared for 1,702 children, the majority from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They were mostly girls, some as young as 3. The children were generally healthy, but scared, lonely and tired — far from home and without their parents.

In a feat of organizational efficiency, UCLA Health workers transformed an empty convention center into a functional medical facility and 1,000-bed shelter in less than 24 hours. Diagnostic equipment was brought in. Secure computer networks were set up. An urgent-care center was built, along with medical exam rooms and an isolation tent for children with COVID-19 or other contagious diseases. A staff of bilingual nurses, doctors and specialists flooded in.

UCLA nurse helping migrant children
Chai Chih Huang worked at the migrant children emergency-intake site at the Long Beach Convention Center starting on Day 1. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)
Tracy Reyes Serrano was among the Child Life Specialists helping to care for migrant children at the Long Beach Convention Center. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)

Yet, despite their medical expertise, it was the human connection they provided that proved most healing for these vulnerable children, Dunne says.

“It’s having someone pay attention to them,” he says. “It’s having someone listen to them. It’s having someone encourage them.”

Connecting beyond medicine

Child Life Specialist Tracy Reyes Serrano, whose parents immigrated to the U.S., told the children about her family’s experience as new arrivals. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia talked about his personal history as an immigrant from Peru, how he came to California at age 5 and went on to earn a doctorate in education.

“I remember this girl of 15 coming back to him and saying, ‘Well, if you can do this, then certainly I can. So in 10 years, I’m going to be the mayor of Long Beach,’” Dunne recalls.

Los Angeles Dodgers great Fernando Valenzuela and current star Albert Pujols also shared personal stories with the kids as they played Wiffle ball with them.

That the two were superstar professional athletes didn’t matter. For the children at the shelter, it was just a chance to play ball with people who looked like them and spoke their language, Dunne says: “To take that time to just be a kid again, and to feel cared about and feel loved and encouraged in that journey, encouraged in life.”

Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman Albert Pujols signs an autograph for a child at the Long Beach Convention Center, June 2, 2021. (Photo by Josh Barber/Los Angeles Dodgers)

Still, the caregivers at the shelter, which included workers from UCI Health and Children’s Hospital Orange County, never lost sight of their medical mission.

They provided acute care during nearly 6,000 urgent-care visits and administered more than 1,600 standard childhood vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella. The team also provided 806 first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to children age 12 and older.

More than 91% of the children housed at the Long Beach shelter were reunited with family members. Others were transferred to longer-term care facilities until reunions could be arranged.

Adapting quickly, reaching underserved communities

Dunne says he and other administrators learned a lot about logistics and how UCLA Health can continue to deliver top-quality medical care in locations outside of traditional clinics and hospitals.

They’re now prepared to replicate the rapid set-up of a fully operational facility “if we were to have a large earthquake or some other significant event where we needed to pull together an alternate care location — a shelter operation or a remote emergency department,” he says.

The experience with the Long Beach shelter also inspired Dunne and other administrators to look for more ways to provide care to vulnerable and underserved communities that can’t access UCLA Health clinics and medical centers for whatever reason.

“We want to take the talent of UCLA and our partners on the road,” Dunne says, “to be able to reach populations that maybe we don’t reach as well today.”

The biggest takeaway, in Dunne’s view, is the profound healing power of kindness and compassion. He compared the migrant children’s journey to crossing a turbulent river.

“We looked at this shelter as a rock in the middle of the river that was really solid. And they could take some time and recover a little bit in their journey and they didn’t have to worry about being swept away,” he says.

“We don’t know what their future holds or what’s going to happen to them. But I think giving them that safe environment and that time to rest, gain some solace and look forward to the next steps in their path – that’s what we really tried to accomplish in our time with them.”

Further reading

UCLA Health provides comprehensive medical care for unaccompanied migrant children

UCLA Health Child Life Specialists bring warmth, support to migrant children in Long Beach

Timeline: An emergency-intake site for migrant children is built in 24 hours