Category Archives: Environment

Talking about the weather, terrain, flora, fauna, etc…

2024 Beyond Borders Team Circled Together in Conversation

Day 1: The Learning Curve

Today was our first day in the field. We were able to sleep in a bit, at least compared to our 4AM start yesterday. The day started with breakfast at the hotel which prompted the conversation of how toasted toast should be. We also made some homemade wellness shots using Emergen-C and the hotel’s juice selection. From there, our team visited the South Texas Human Rights Center for the first time.

South Texas Human Rights Center Facility
South Texas Human Rights Center

We met Eddie, one of the organizations three founders, and he gave us the run-down of how the South Texas Human Rights Center came to be and what the center has been able to accomplish in the past few years. Eddie and his two colleagues, Nora and Vanessa. answered phone calls from those who need help throughout the moring. Much of the help they provide comes in the form of information. They answer so many different questions depending on the information someone needs. Where should I go? Who should I call? What does this mean? Though the help they provide is important, Eddie remarked the most important aspect of answering calls is being willing to listen. Many who call the center may be experiencing a tragedy, and speaking with someone who is willing to listen can be a great comfort. Eddie and his colleagues told us stories of how they were able to help and sometimes when help didn’t come soon enough. It was heart wrenching.

Meeting at South Texas Human Rights Center (From Left to Right: Eddie, Claire, Chastidy, Hannah, and Ella)
Meeting at the South Texas Human Rights Center

At about noon, Eddie headed out to tend some of the water stations with a service learning group from South Carolina University just as Don and Ray arrived. Don and Ray will be our guides and support system as we head into the field. Don is a skilled tracker wth extensive experience doing searches in the remote ranchlands here in south Texas. He is able to tell so much information from what he sees in the field. Ray is also an expert in search and recovery, and a medic. He makes sure the team can give our best out in the field. Ray carries a large backpack that holds medical supplies if we need it.

Don (Pictured on the right) and Ray (Pictured on the Left)
Ray and Don

We packed into Don’s Jeep and Ray’s truck and headed to the area we will be searching. Our search today was based on GPS coodinates where someone was reported missing. First, we did a systematic line-search, which was a new technique for the whole student team. The struggle of keeping pace, while making sure to search the area effectively was a new challenge.

Individuals Performing a Line Search (From Left to Right: Chastidy, Claire and Hannah)
Line Search Formation

Don scouted ahead disappearing and reappearing multiple times. Just when we thought we had not seen him for a while, he would chime in over the radio about our progress waving from his vantage point. Don was also followed closely by his dog Socks. She often ran through our line to check in on us before returning to Don’s side.

Socks, Don's Dog

Ray followed behind us, giving short anecdotes as we searched. We then moved into a more difficult area with dense vegetation and mots (mass of trees). The area required us to partner up so we could search without losing our way. Over the course of the afternoon, we found some trash and debris, which was evidence of migrant activity in the area, as well as a plethora of animal bones.

Animal Skeletal Remainas
Animal Skeletal Remains

Overall, today offered so many learning opportunities. I look forward to how we will improve as we continue throughout the week.

The team with Don and Ray eating dinner at Stricklands
Day 1 dinner at Stricklands


A country road in south Texas

Sometimes the Hardest Thing to Do is the Right Thing

My first trip to Brooks County Texas was in May 2013. With that initial and each subsequent trip, my understanding of immigration and the crisis along our southern border has changed. As have my thoughts on how the Beyond Borders team can contribute to the prolonged mass disaster situation facing many counties in south Texas. I will focus this post on what we learn and what we take from these trips. To date, thirty University of Indianapolis students and faculty have participated in at least one Beyond Borders mission to the Texas borderlands.  Our trips focus on quality over quantity, in that a small group of students travel each time for a truly immersive experience. The goals are 1) to provide the practical forensic anthropology and forensic archeology skills of our program and 2) to provide an immersive and transformative experience for the students that focuses on empathy and global interconnectedness.

Team members searching the brush in south TX
Line Search

With every trip I learn from the people around me. From the community members who are immersed in this environment year-round, to colleagues who are also contributing in various capacities, to my students who depart Indiana full of energy asking just the right questions to consider things from yet another angle. This trip we were able to briefly meet with Sheriff Benny Martinez. I haven’t seen him since our January 2019 trip. He is a big reason why this work has continued and the success in exhumations and identifications in Brooks County has been a model for other counties in South Texas. He always says something that puts things into perspective for me. This time he said “Sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing”. He was telling the team about how things have changed over the years in regards to preventing deaths and immigration policies. Things have gotten so political that people say and do what they think that have to rather than what they know is right.

Team members searching the brush in south Texas
Line Search

Changes in perspective often do not occur until a person or someone close to them is directly impacted. That is why empathy is such an important goal of these trips. To experience how one’s own assumptions and perspectives influence their thoughts or behaviors, and how immersive experiences can be used to question those assumptions is powerful.  Extending that to understand that one’s own life experiences create the lens for how they view all situations and stepping back to consider another’s feelings or experiences can create a better understanding of the world we live in. I hope my team always chooses the right thing, even when it’s the hardest path. Experiencing global connections is also important in that it shows how we are all connected as humans regardless of geography, political or other social borders. We can work together to do the right thing, even we have different ideas and perspectives.

May 2022 Beyond Borders Team

Every trip I watch the team transform with each day in the Texas borderlands. They grow not only as professional forensic scientists but in so many other ways as well. They learn the power of teamwork and friendship. I allow each team member to contribute ideas to our plans to build confidence in their own abilities. Just telling them what to do does not help them grow. But placing them in an environment where their contributions are heard and valued is important for their personal and professional growth.  This group was no exception. I am proud of their work and growth in the especially harsh environmental conditions of this trip. I am proud of what we accomplished as a team.


Back to Normality

Beyond borders group photo in the brush
The Team

These trips are something I am so grateful for. I not only learn so much but I am learning through experiences not many people get to have or even know exist. We were able to visit the border wall, meet Sheriff Benny Martinez, perform successful search and recoveries, and learn so much everyday from not only our brave leader, Dr. Latham, but also Ray and Don who took care of us and put up with our attitudes (I know y’all miss my voice already).

This team grew so much over the week in Texas. Not only as teammates but as friends as well. From the first day of searching to the last, our skills as a team grew immensely. Our communication skills while searching were the highlight of our growth, in my opinion. We went from reiterating how straight a line should be to maintaining a line without even questioning where our “person”, what I call the person who keeps track of you no matter the conditions, would be. This team was extremely efficient at taking our own notes (what we thought we did well for the day and where we thought we could improve) and applying them to our work the subsequent day. Along with that, we shared so many smiles and laughs along the way, from trying to get turkeys to respond to our calls to almost getting attacked by a turkey (Sorry Liv). We faced a number of challenges, including physical and mental. We worked together to keep morale high and keep a sharp eye on each other to make sure each of us were hydrated and took breaks when we needed it. The heat was no joke. It constantly made me think of the migrants facing these conditions. I was pushing forward extremely prepared and still feeling the effects of the heat. I can’t imagine what those individuals must go through to fight for each day. The day all team members got benched because of heat stress was an especially hard one for me. The physical stress felt nothing compared to the frustration I was facing mentally, which in itself was also worsened due to the heat. Our safety always comes first, even when we want to throw it to the side and push on for our cause. Regardless, we moved forward as a team and supported one another. This team exemplified there truly is no I in team because every win was a win for all of us.

This blog post always is always the hardest to write. I truly thought that because I had gone on the Beyond Borders trip in January that my transition back to my “normal life” would be easier, but less than 24 hours into that transition (as I write this) and I know that isn’t true. The feeling of being able to put your entire life on hold to devote your time to not only others but to a truly brave and good cause is immeasurable. We discuss feelings like this in our final debrief that, again, feelings like this are normal. I cannot speak for everyone, but personally, there is an immense sense of guilt as I plan my days here at home. It’s hard to go from actively working towards a cause to struggling to find things to fill the hours of the day as you had before. Its even hard to make myself stop constantly searching everywhere I walk. Tedious daily operations like ordering Starbucks or deciding on an outfit for the day seem trivial. It feels if you are not working towards a goal or for a cause that your days are meaningless. I know this isn’t true (even though it really doesn’t matter what fancy coffee I order or what clothes I wear. Those were simply examples). This is the challenge of transitioning back to what I am referring to as normal life.

Being able to travel with the Beyond Borders team is a privilege I am so lucky to have experienced. It has also left me with the tools to continue my humanitarian efforts concurrently with my normal life. I am still working on my degree at UIndy to be able to be more qualified in doing this work. Spreading the word of the humanitarian crisis occurring at the US-Mexico border and my experience with it is a small act I can do to help others understand that what they see on the news is only one perspective and not always the truth of the matter. Behind the headlines and stories are millions of people affected.

The cemetery we viewed the first day of arriving in Texas was one previously worked on by multiple forensic teams, including UIndy. Approximately 150 unidentified migrants had been recovered from their “communal resting place” with hundresd more deaths of unidentified migrants documented, meaning there are more individuals there that are unidentified, more families still wondering about their loved ones, and more work to be done. Additionally, there are so many other individuals who perish on their journey into the US that are not only still being searched for but still being missed by their families. I can never say I know how those families feel, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to live each day and not know where your loved one is or if they are even alive. This is one of the main reasons I do this work and is also the thought that not only kept motivating me to push harder in Texas but continually motivates me to do what I can for those affected while home. No one deserves to feel this way, regardless of race, ethnicity, size, shape, etc. It can be easy to distance yourself from the reality of what goes on at the border, but these are real people, enduring real tragedies, often at the chance for a better life that they may or may not reach.

One of the most fulfilling parts of my experiences with the Beyond Borders team occurred on this trip. A message from a migrant, who had been apprehended by border patrol, was sent in to Dr. Latham. The message was about a woman who had been left behind in the brush and her descriptors. I was able to translate the message and get the information back to those who could continue searching. This is truly an experience I will never forget. I will carry it with me always, and I hope that the woman has reached safety. The opportunity to directly help a migrant had such an impact on me that I honestly can’t put it into words how much it meant, so forgive this small paragraph because it deserves pages.

I want to thank Dr. Latham for the opportunity to work in Texas again. Being a member of this team is an honor, and the perspective and knowledge I have gained is priceless. Thank you to Papaw Don and Pop-pop Ray for teaching me, keeping me safe each day, and answering my nonsense questions to keep everyone smiling.

This is work I will never stop asking for. There is so much left to be done and so much knowledge to be shared. I hope I can continue not only through Beyond Borders, but in a number of ways, to help those affected by this crisis.

Be kind,