Two Yankton child welfare professionals, concerned by recent news stories regarding conditions at child detention facilities at the United States’ southern border, are organizing a Lights for Liberty event Friday at 9 p.m. at the Meridian Bridge in Yankton.
"Lights for Liberty is a way for us, here in Yankton, to send a message to the people that can make changes, that we don’t want to see children treated that way at the border," event organizer Jennifer Powell said. "We see the news and the pictures and the comments coming back from the border and we have a passion to protect all children. So that inspired us to get some way to get the message out."
The entire event is expected to last about 30 minutes.
Attendees are welcome to bring any form of electric light or glow sticks, but not traditional wax candles, to the green space by the Meridian Bridge. Bernie Hunhoff will act as MC for the event. Scheduled speakers including State Rep. Ryan Cwach, the Rev. Ronald Johnson of First United Methodist Church of Yankton and Kenn Leischner, interim pastor at Yankton’s United Church of Christ will offer brief remarks.
"Then we will have a moment of silence, stressing that this is not a political issue; this is a humanitarian issue," said event co-organizer Liza Larson. "We are going to walk on the bridge, probably to the center, and then take a group photograph that we will send to our congressman and use on social media."
Similar vigils are set to occur that evening at 9 p.m. nationally.
The purpose of the vigil is twofold: a show of support to those trying to reach humane solutions to the issues presented at the border and the elimination of for-profit detention centers, Larson said.
"The idea of people making millions of dollars off of caging children is not acceptable," she said.
For some time, conflicting reports about conditions in those facilities as well as treatment have been emerging.
"What we do know is enough to motivate us," Powell said.
Larson and Powell found the practice of separating children from their parents disturbing, as well as rumors that staff has no physical contact with any of the children — not even a hug.
"There needs to be humane treatment, regardless of politics," Powell said. "We both work at Lewis & Clark Behavioral Health in the Youth and Family Division, and the well-being of children is an important issue; trauma at an early age is always destructive."
"The counselors where we work all are concerned about the long-term effects on the children," Larson said.
As a grandmother herself, Powell said she can’t help but imagine her grandchildren in that situation and it breaks her heart.
"We can do better. America can do better," she said.
At the end of the event, preprinted, pre-addressed postcards will be available to send to South Dakota’s elected legislators in Washington, D.C.
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