Karen Slaggert: Suffer the Little Children

By Sally Anne Flecker | Fall 2014

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The Tapachula prison in southern Mexico is communal—open dormitories where families join incarcerated husbands and fathers if there is nowhere else to go. “These children are in the midst of rapists, killers, prostitutes, drug dealers. Men sell their children as prostitutes to get money for food,” says Karen Slaggert, associate director of the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship.

But it’s not entirely hopeless, thanks to Mission on the Move. Founded by an American couple who go into the prison and convince parents to let them care for their children, the mission has three homes in Tapachula where they raise as many as 60 children. “They have no schools in the prison,” Slaggert says. “These children would have no chance but to follow
in the footsteps of their parents.”

Slaggert has been an enthusiastic volunteer for Mission on the Move since her first trip 10 years ago when she and other women from her South Bend church provided respite for the house parents—cooking, cleaning and spending time with the children. “These are precious children, no different from my kids or yours,” she says.

The cooking and cleaning that she and her team do is grueling—cooking for 60 people on industrial stoves in a kitchen where there’s no AC and temps outside hover around 100 degrees. Oh, and convenience foods aren’t an option. Everything they cook is from scratch. Then there’s the laundry. The huge industrial washing machines are great but laundry lines crisscross the back yard and all the wash is hung out to dry. “We are wimps compared to the workers there,” says Slaggert. “It takes an army of us to replace the two house parents.”

Slaggert and her husband Paul (BBA ‘74), Mendoza’s director of non-degree programs, have three children with Notre Dame degrees thanks to the university’s educational benefit program. Now they’re paying it forward, helping with college tuition for the children of the mission.

“These boys were living in a prison and had no hope,” she says. “Now they are going to make a difference.”