In 2011, Jennifer Verkamp saw the path cut across the desert by migrants on a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, part of a three-day ecumenical conference called “Eucharist Without Borders” outside of Tucson, Ariz.
“Along it you would see empty tuna cans, toothbrushes, backpacks, children’s clothes, adult clothes, shoes that were completely broken. But then the question was did they survive coming or did they not? And I’ll never forget that,” she said.
It was one of a handful of experiences that led her to social work with immigrants and refugees. Verkamp is the new director for Catholic Immigration Services in Little Rock, part of Catholic Charities of Arkansas.
“It was huge to me that it was in a Catholic setting … being at the diocese was such an honor,” she said, admitting the position was one she hoped for at some point in her career, but didn’t imagine the opportunity would arise so soon while staying close to family. “… I think (Catholic Immigration Services) is already a place where people come and they feel comfortable; it’s the Church.”
The 28-year-old is a parishioner at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, but grew up attending Sacred Heart Church in Charleston, a city of less than 2,500. Despite the small community, Verkamp was exposed to other cultures early in life. When she was 11 years old and her sister was 9, her parents, Deacon Mark and Tracy Verkamp, adopted 7-month old twin sisters from Guatemala, who are now 17.
In 2011, Sacred Heart Church and the city rallied around Ronald Arroyo and his family — who were undocumented immigrants from Costa Rica after an employer failed to meet a filing deadline sponsoring citizenship — at a Memphis court hearing to help them stay in the United States. The effort, which paid off as the family is still at Sacred Heart, “gives me chills” to this day, she said.
“I was always sort of interested in other countries and cultures and wanting to travel,” she said.
Verkamp attended the University of Arkansas in Fort Smith and as a student, traveled to Honduras with Missionaries of Charity for six weeks where she learned how to “really utilize my faith.”
She continued mission work, visiting Guatemala eight times to work in a Franciscan orphanage through the St. Scholastica Monastery Partners in Benedictine Education program, which provides scholarships to Guatemalan girls.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and psychology, Verkamp worked as a youth minister at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers. While pursuing her master’s degree in social work with a global concentration through Boston College, her studies took her to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Chile and Zambia. Last year while in Santiago, Chile — a country that is still learning how to accept migrants and refugees after dictatorship rule ended — she interned for almost five months to integrate social work into the migration law clinic of Pontifical Catholic University.
“A lot of these migrants they’ve gone on journeys, and a lot of them are victims of trauma so a social worker is really trained to work with these types of situations,” to assist with housing, jobs and race relations, Verkamp said.
About the time of her August 2017 graduation, she traveled to Zambia to work on an exploratory study regarding HIV/AIDS and still is involved in the project today.
Patrick Gallaher, director of Catholic Charities of Arkansas, said, “We are extremely pleased to have Jennifer join our Catholic Charities team. She brings an incredible intellect, a sound faith and a wealth of international perspective.”
While still learning, Verkamp hopes to continue the legacy of welcome set by the staff in the Little Rock office.
“Many immigrants, they don’t feel like they’re welcome and I just want this to be an environment where they feel like they’re welcome and that we really want them here and we see them as human beings that really have a lot to offer,” she said.
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