Thousands Are Missing or Dead Along the Border. Meet the People Trying to Find Them

Tucson is a dustbowl. Flanked by mountains to the east and west, the city that was built in the middle of the Sonoran desert — known mostly for fire-red sunsets that cast shadows from long-armed saguaro cacti — can be deadly.
When I visited in June, it wasn’t even summer yet, and midday temperatures were already kissing the tops of thermometers in the triple digits; the pool water at my hotel felt like tepid bathwater. For most people who live here, it’s the beginning of a season for barbecues under shaded awnings and pool parties, in a desperate attempt to stay cool.
But for workers at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, it’s the season of the dead.
Pima County is one of the many areas along the U.S. southern border that doesn’t have a border wall. Even in areas where there is a wall, desperate immigrants still try to cross on foot.
The number of immigrants who’ve been apprehended trying to cross the border has decreased over the past two decades, from nearly 1.7 million in 2000 to a fifth of that number this year — thanks in part to foreign policy initiatives enacted by the Obama and Bush administrations, in addition to hints of economic resiliency in Mexico. But the number of people who die crossing the border has remained the same, and in some areas has even gone up.
What that means, essentially, is that the death rate has increased dramatically, leaving us with evidence of something more problematic than just a border security issue.
“We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, absolutely,” says Dr. Robin Reineke, an anthropologist and co-founder and executive director of the Colibrí Human Rights Center in Tucson.
The crisis becomes obvious in the Pima County morgue, where body bags are stacked in the freezer, many with identification tags scrawled with “John” or “Jane Doe.” For remains that can’t be assigned a gender, they are designated “Unidentified.” The number of bodies can get so cumbersome that during this time of year, mobile freezer trailers have been brought in to house the overflow.
The bodies — or more often than not, the skeletal remains — arrive in pieces, with little way of identifying them. But a recent partnership between Colibrí and the medical examiner’s office has enabled a unique combination of cultural anthropology and DNA testing to ID the unknown. Working together, they have successfully identified 150 bodies over the past decade.  
Though that number is tiny compared to the thousands who, over the years, have gone missing and are feared dead in the Arizona desert, for grieving families who agonize over whether or not their loved ones are dead, identifying the bodies allows for some sense of closure.

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At the Pima County morgue, unidentified migrant bodies stack up in the summer months.

Carmina Santa Cruz hasn’t seen her son, Marco, for five years.
Since Santa Cruz first came to the States as an illegal immigrant in 1985, her son and daughter have shuttled back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., in order to spend time with their mother.
It’s not uncommon for immigrants from many countries to come to the U.S. for six months on a tourist visa, then return to their home country to reset the clock, before repeating the cycle again. It’s an easy way to skirt immigration rules without being deported, so long as you’re not caught working. But for those who stay longer than six months and are caught, that’s when people are detained and barred from entering the States for years as punishment.
But Marco wasn’t deported — he had no intention of living in the U.S. He owned a shop in Nogales, Mexico, and lived comfortably, according to his mother, who spoke to NationSwell through an interpreter.
But Marco was depressed. A divorce from his wife, who barred him from visiting his children, sent him into a depression, says Santa Cruz. “He told me that he had no desire to live,” she adds. “According to him, he was coming to my house, but I did not know anything about him crossing the desert.”
In August, three weeks after he said he would arrive, Santa Cruz panicked and went searching for him.
“I went to Nogales to look for him like every 15 days or every week. A supposed friend that [crossed the border] with him came back and tried to reach me to explain that my son had died in the desert,” she says.
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“I could not do anything, I felt as if I was disabled and powerless to do anything,” says Carmina Santa Cruz, who’s son has been missing for years.

But that was just one of many stories Santa Cruz heard about what had happened to her son. Marco’s friends and acquaintances reached out, sharing different details on where they had last seen him. Santa Cruz followed every lead. She began her search at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, but quickly realized that they would not be able to help her. She also went to the sheriff’s office, but says that they “treated me like a Mexican, like I wasn’t worth anything.”
That’s not an uncommon feeling for many immigrants who learn about lost family members at the border. And going to Border Patrol, which does search and rescue for bodies reported along the border, comes at a risk — especially if they’re undocumented.
“They can contact Border Patrol, they can contact the police department, they can contact [their] consulate, but they also need to know that we’re here to do a job, which is to enforce the immigration laws,” says Operation Officer Hugo Vega, who heads the U.S. Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program in southern Texas. “They gotta be aware of any consequences that could arise from coming to the Border Patrol station, and if they’re here illegally, there’s gonna be a process to follow.”
It’s that process that has most families spooked into staying silent. As a result, mothers in Santa Cruz’s position end up losing hope in finding their children.
“Every day I locked myself up in a room to cry because I did not know how to find him; all the doors were closed for me,” she says. “I could not do anything, I felt as if I was disabled and powerless to do anything. In this time of anguish, the only thing that you want is for someone to open a door for you.”
To say the trek over the U.S.-Mexico border is difficult is a radical understatement. I grew up in Arizona, where oven mitts and beach towels were common driving accessories inside hot cars, which could top 130 degrees when parked outside for even short periods of time. We even had a pool cooler, growing up.
So I wanted to see what it was like crossing the border myself, or at least experience what it was like to walk through the desert — something I had never done outside of recreational camping.
In my visit to Tucson, I parked my car on the shoulder of a highway southwest of the city and walked south into the San Xavier Indian reservation toward the Mexican border. According to my GPS, the border was a day’s walk away on the road. Close to 500 bodies have been discovered in this area since 2002, according to the Arizona Open GIS, which tracks migrant deaths along the border through the nonprofit organization, Humane Borders.

Most of the bodies and skeletal remains found there are unrecognizable. Once a person dies, decomposition begins. Leave a body in the desert for even a day and, with the help of heat and hungry desert animals, faces become unrecognizable. Identifying marks, such as tattoos and birthmarks, quickly fade away.
“It’s not uncommon for someone to essentially become skeletal remains within a small period of time, say a few weeks, where it may take a lot longer for that to occur in a cooler environment,” says Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner.
But immigrants coming to the U.S. by foot aren’t using an iPhoneX to lead their way, like I was. And they generally avoid highways, where Border Patrol might be driving, making the day’s walk last up to a week, I’m told by those who have survived the trek.
I didn’t last more than two hours in the sun before having to turn back. In that short time, the bottoms of my feet were burnt through my shoes, and I was drenched in sweat. I could have easily become dehydrated within a few more hours — which is how most people crossing the border die, according to Pima County officials.
For corpses that are recovered, they are often found in pieces, with skulls and other large bones separated from the bodies. In 2010, then-Arizona Governor Jan Brewer used headless bodies found in the desert as “proof” of illegal immigrants killing people after crossing the border. (Contrary to Brewer’s claims, when a body decomposes, there is very little to hold a skull to the spine, so a head easily detaches and rolls away.) Out of the thousands of bodies that have gone through the Pima medical examiner’s office, less than 50 have been labeled as victims of foul play — and even those are death by firearm, Hess says.
“Almost all of [the deaths] have been from exposure,” he adds.
Some immigrants have gone to great lengths to rescue bodies at risk of getting lost. Stretchers made out of cholla cactus skeletons and bound with shoelaces and underwear bands have been found throughout the Arizona desert. In one instance, Reineke tells me, the body of an elderly woman was carried on a stretcher to the nearest road where Border Patrol was flagged down.
But not all immigrants can afford to waste that kind of energy, or risk being deported by carrying bodies along with them across the desert.
César Ortigoza is the founder of Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate (Armadillos Search and Rescue) in San Diego, a group of San Diego–based volunteers who perform search and rescue operations for immigrants lost in the desert. Ortigoza is one of a handful of volunteers who are contacted by family members, mostly through Facebook, seeking help in finding their missing loved ones.
“Every single day we get between two and five [calls],” he says. “Most of the time when they call us, they say, ‘I know he went through Arizona.’ A lot of time we say, ‘What part of Arizona?’ And they say, ‘That’s all we know.’”
Ortigoza is short and cherubic, and when he laughs his face wrinkles like the skin of a ripe peach. We are drinking chilled coconut and agave water in his apartment in Vista, California, laughing about the Star Wars action figures he has lined up on his desk, when he gets a call. It’s a woman inquiring about her husband: He had been deported and was trying to get back to his family in the U.S. by crossing the border, but had gone missing instead.
“He said he was about an hour-and-a-half away, but he said to me, ‘I feel weak,’” the woman told Ortigoza over the phone, crying. She told Ortigoza that if her husband felt he was in danger, he would call Border Patrol for help. But now his phone was dead, and there was no way of knowing if he was dead or alive.
Finding bodies isn’t necessarily the largest hurdle for Hess and Reineke. The real challenge is trying to figure out whom the bones belong to — and in many cases, they have only a few possessions found around a body to use as clues.
This is where Colibrí finds its niche. With a limited budget, the group of six staff members, including Reineke, use their training as cultural anthropologists to identify the people whose remains are recovered along the border.
It’s a unique solution to an incredibly difficult problem, where often the only possessions people have on them when they die is some money, maybe a few photos and, more often than not, a couple of phone numbers and a laminated prayer card of St. Christopher, the Catholic saint of travel.
Jewelry or certain clothing items, such as an insignia on a hat, might give clues to regions where people are from. A tattoo or missing teeth might also help identify remains.
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Dr. Gregory Hess and NationSwell reporter Joseph Darius Jaafari examine remains found in the desert.

Since 2012, Reineke and her team have been able to compile missing persons reports — hundreds per year — that include such details from family members. It’s her team’s job to match them with the bodies that are found.
“For example, we might get a missing person’s report, which says when the person was the last seen alive,” Reineke says. “We then open the files of the unidentified at the beginning of July of that year, and one by one look for any clues. We know that he was missing this tooth, so I flip past any females and anybody who does have a tooth there. Then we get to the point of, ‘Well, it’s a pretty strong comparison but it’s really not strong enough to make a positive ID.’”
That process alone is tedious and time-consuming, and it has resulted in about 10 to 12 identifications per year with the help of the medical examiner’s office. And DNA is the surest way to truly identify someone. So two years ago, Colibrí received a $200,000 grant to send DNA samples of living family members to the medical examiner’s office to help identify more bodies.
Now when families call Colibrí for help in identifying remains, mouth swabs are taken and their DNA is logged with the report. That DNA is then matched against bodies brought to the Pima County’s medical examiner office, where Colibrí is also housed.
“Being here means that we can communicate live with each other. We have access to each other’s databases,” says Reineke. “When the medical examiner’s office receives calls from people searching for missing loved ones, we’ll take the missing person’s report and make sure that data gets compared against unidentified human remains.”
The result has been 56 people identified each year using both DNA testing and the anthropological methods cited above. The federal genetics program, in comparison, has identified only a quarter of that number each year.
Despite an onslaught of negative press directed at the Border Patrol — especially after a Mother Jones article detailed the racism and apathy of self-proclaimed “border militia” members fraternizing with Border Patrol agents, and a viral video showed Border Patrol agents kicking over life-saving water stations in the desert — there is an effort within the sprawling agency to help migrants stay alive.
Through microphotography, a process that can be used to reconstruct skin based on small traces of muscle or skin cells left on bones, Vega has been able to identify up to 60 people by matching reconstructed fingerprints with those logged in the U.S. fingerprint data system after previous deportations.
“We’re working with stage four decomposition levels. This is basically skeletal remains with just a little, tiny bit of skin on the hands, and you’re talking highly dehydrated skin, highly decomposed skin, and we’re capturing the rich details that are found under pretty much all the layers of the skin,” Vega says. “It depends on the circumstances, but I can tell you that we have identified bodies that are pretty close to being skeletons.”
Even though the Missing Migrant Program is intertwined with an agency that breeds resentment and fear among the Latino communities in the U.S. Southwest, Vega says they’re doing their best to identify dead bodies in the service of bringing peace and closures to families.
“To save lives, prevent death, obviously that’s our most important mission,” he says. “But if death happens, [we] dignify the process for the families.”
For Santa Cruz, she is still waiting to hear about her son. Her DNA has been logged and Reineke continues to look for Marco, despite the odds of him being found alive.
“When you know that your son may have died in the desert, it changes your life and the lives of your whole family,” says Santa Cruz. “It is an unbearable pain that drives you crazy and makes you lose your mind. You do not want to continue on living without the son you have lost.”

This article is the fourth and final installment of NationSwell’s multimedia series “Aid at the Border,” which explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.

The Unlikely Partnership That’s Saving Lives in the Desert

Episode 2 of NationSwell’s “Aid at the Border” multimedia series, which explores humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border, zeroes in on the special relationship between an interfaith organization and the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.
In the years following Operation Gatekeeper — a 1994 immigration measure that sought to seal off routes into San Diego — migrants began streaming into Arizona, making the Tucson sector one of the busiest at the southern border. By the turn of the century, the U.S. Border Patrol was reporting record-high levels of apprehensions, including more than 600,000 in 2000 alone. That’s when Rev. Robin Hoover founded the migrant-aid nonprofit Humane Borders, made up of a cross-section of Tucson’s faith communities all working toward a common goal: saving immigrant lives.

“If you were out here in the desert and you asked a guy for a drink of water, do you really think he’d say no?” says Bob Feinman, vice chair of Humane Borders. “That’s all it’s about; it’s that simple for us.”
Similar to the San Diego–based aid organization Water Station, Humane Borders maintains 50 fixed water stations throughout the Sonoran desert, where more than 3,000 migrants have died since 1999. Along with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, the organization also maintains the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a data map that pinpoints the deadliest regions in the desert.

But Humane Borders’ work isn’t limited to providing water and geographic data. They also collaborate with Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector on a number of campaigns to spread word of the dangers of crossing the border without documents. This partnership is essential to Border Patrol’s mission, says Steven Passement, acting special operations supervisor in the Tucson sector.
“We want to save lives; they want to save lives,” says Agent Passement. “Any kind of water that’s out in these environments is going to save a life.”
Watch Episode 2 of “Aid at the Border” above to see how migrant-aid volunteers and Border Patrol agents have united around a common cause.

This video is the second in a four-part multimedia series, “Aid at the Border,” that explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.

4 Long Weekends That Have Long-Lasting Impact

You just emptied the sand from your shoes and put the suitcases away in the attic, but you’re already dreaming of your next getaway. Why not take time off to have meaningful impact on others or the planet?

On the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Global Volunteers participants work on a labor project.


Instill the importance of service in your children by taking them on a volunteer vacation. Global Volunteers helps families plan trips to a variety of destinations in the United States and abroad. Service trip participants can travel to Appalachia where they repair homes of elderly and disabled residents, rehabilitate run-down classrooms and work alongside local youth in community gardens. Or volunteers can head to Montana’s Blackfeet Indian Reservation (located next door to Glacier National Park). While there, they can teach teens and adults computer skills or assist with a summer day camp for Native American youth.

National Geographic Student Expeditions puts teenagers to work cleaning up beaches and collecting data on the Hawaiian coastline.


National Geographic Student Expeditions has several options to entice kids to get off the couch and into service. In Hawaii, for example, kids will put in 35 to 40 hours working alongside environmentalists, digging up invasive species, collecting data on the Kohala watershed and conducting beach cleanups.  

American Hiking Society volunteers assist in the restoration of the Grandview Trail in Grand Canyon Nation Park.


Those that want to spend their time off caring for America’s great outdoors can learn how to rehabilitate hiking trails by volunteering with the American Hiking Society. Or sign up with the Sierra Club. You can learn to give backpacking tours of Arizona’s Galiuro Mountains and the giant saguaro cactus forests of the Sonoran Desert.
For information on more volunteer vacations, check out Elevate Destinations, International Volunteer Headquarters, Global Vision International  and Globe Aware.
MORE: 5 of the Best Ways to Volunteer This Holiday Season

Artificial Intelligence Protects First Responders, How Birth Control Is Stopping the Spread of Disease and More

This NASA-Developed A.I. Could Help Save Firefighters’ Lives, Smithsonian Magazine
Disorienting scenes where a single move can be deadly is a common experience for both space rovers and firefighters. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which built an artificial intelligence system for navigating unfamiliar landscapes, is sharing its technology with fire departments — warning first responders about hazards they might not notice in the smoke and flames.

Man v. Rat: Could the Long War Soon Be Over? The Guardian
A New York City subway rat carries a host of dangerous contagions, and its reproductive capacity — up to 15,000 offspring in a year — spread disease through city sewers and alleyways. A biotech startup in Flagstaff, Ariz., has developed a humane way to deal with Gotham’s infestation where rat poison has failed: birth control.
Generational Poverty: Trying to Solve Philly’s Most Enduring Problem, Philadelphia Magazine
Can Mattie McQueen, an unemployed 52-year-old raising three grandchildren in a largely unfurnished apartment, escape the destitution that’s dogged her ancestors since the postbellum years? One Philadelphia nonprofit is using what’s being called a “two- generation” model to assuage her financial stresses to make space for the children’s learning.

Mindfulness at Work: 7 Places Where Employees Benefit from Meditation

Mindfulness, the practice of being awake to the present moment, is now in vogue in American workplaces as varied as Google, Goldman Sachs, Aetna and General Mills. Backed by scientific research of the cognitive benefits of ancient Buddhist meditation, corporate types thinking of productivity and the bottom line quickly trained their workers how to focus using mindfulness. Outside of finance, tech and manufacturing industries, NationSwell found seven more workplaces where you find employees reaping the benefits of meditating on a regular basis.

1. Concert Hall

Where: Tempe, Ariz.
After studying mindfulness for four decades, Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard, is renowned as the field’s mother. Her concept of mindfulness differs from the common practice, in that she believes no meditation is necessary to change the brain’s chemistry; instead, she achieves mindfulness by existing in a state of “actively noticing new things,” she tells NationSwell.
As part of her research, she once split the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra into two groups and instructed each to play a piece of music by Johannes Brahms, which she recorded. Langer asked the first group to remember their best performance of the familiar piece and try their best to replicate it. She told the other group of musicians to vary the classical piece with subtle riffs that only they would recognize. Langer taped both performances and played them side-by-side for an audience. Overwhelmingly, listeners preferred the second one. To Langer, it seemed that the more choices we make deliberately — in a word, mindfully — as opposed to the mindless repetition, the better our end-product will be. The most important implication for Langer came later, when she was writing up the study: In America, she says, we so often prize a “strong leader to tell people what to do,” but as the orchestra’s performance proves, when an individual takes the lead instead of doing what someone instructs her to do, a superior result is the likely outcome.

2. Primary School

Where: East Village, New York City
“The research is pretty conclusive: when kids feel better, they learn better. One precedes the other,” declares Alan Brown, a consultant with Mindful Schools where he offers mindfulness training to the private school’s freshman and sophomores. Brown incorporated a serious practice into his life at a week-long silent retreat, after “jumping out of my skin, reading the toilet paper, doing anything but to be with your own thoughts and with yourself.” He now teaches kids how to be attuned to themselves and recognize feelings that may be subconsciously guiding their lives, like when they’re hyped up with sugar or are stressed out about a test. (Solutions: spending a moment in a designated corner calming down, breathing through a freakout to restore higher cognitive functions.)
As someone in the caregiving profession, Brown reminds himself and his fellow teachers they need to adopt mindfulness practices as well. With them, “the way I interact with others comes from a place of much greater compassion for the kids: clearly this young person, who is not a fully-formed, self-regulating adult, is probably trying their best and probably has some really significant hurdles outside the classroom. I’m not going to let that get to me.” If teachers expect similarly enlightened behavior from their kids, Brown adds, they have to know, “You can’t teach what you don’t have in your own body” and better embrace a meditative practice to see the results at every desk.

The UMass Mindfulness in Medicine program teaches the benefits of meditation to their staff members.

3. Hospital

Where: Shrewsbury, Mass.
Modern mindfulness was formalized in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Jon Kabat-Zinn created an eight-week meditation routine to reduce stress for the hospital’s chronically ill patients that’s now replicated worldwide. Back on the medical campus where it all started, a new mindfulness program is being offered this summer for the people on the other side of treatment: the physicians, nurse practitioners and care managers.
The Mindfulness in Medicine program works to combat the frequent feeling of dissatisfaction about a lack of patient interaction among doctors. Instructor Carl Fulwiler gives lectures about the clinical research on meditation’s benefits, teaches 90-minute workshops for busy staffers and leads full-blown courses for a dedicated few. His teachings focus on how to avoid burnout with strategic pauses; by taking a breath immediately prior to seeing a patient, doctors can focus solely on the interaction. “Often they’re thinking about what’s the next thing they have to do or the documentation. They’re not even hearing a lot of what the patient is saying,” Fulwiler observes. With mindfulness, they can see what “might be contributing to a bad encounter, what’s preventing us from being empathetic, compassionate and more efficient in our style of communication?” The whole interaction may be over in three minutes, but having that time be meaningful is vital for helping the healers themselves feel the rewards of a demanding job.

4. Government

Where: Washington, D.C.
Change rarely comes to our nation’s capital, but that’s okay in Rep. Tim Ryan’s mind. A meditative practice equipped him to deal with legislative gridlock and partisan bickering. The seven-term Democrat representing northeastern Ohio practices mindfulness in a half lotus position for roughly 40 minutes daily — a regimen he began after attending one of Kabat-Zinn’s retreats in 2008, after which he gained “a whole new way of relating with what was going on in the world,” Ryan tells The Atlantic. “And like any good thing that a congressman finds — a new technology, a new policy idea — immediately I said, ‘How do we get this out?’” Ryan first wrote the book “A Mindful Nation,” exploring the ways mindfulness is being implemented across America, and today, in sessions of the House Appropriations Committee on which he sits, the representative advocates for more funds to be deployed to teach meditation tactics. The money may not be forthcoming just yet, but that hasn’t stopped mindfulness from gaining more new converts like Ryan every day.

5. Police Department

Where: Hillsboro, Ore.
Last month, Americans watched videos of officer-involved shootings in Baton Rouge, La.; St. Paul, Minn; and North Miami, and they read about the five cops who died in a sniper attack in Dallas. While those crises were deeply felt by civilians nationwide, they were only a glimpse of what cops encounter regularly. “Law enforcement is a profession that is deeply impacted by trauma. On a daily basis, we bump up against human suffering,” says Lt. Richard Goerling, head of Hillsboro Police Department’s investigative division and a faculty member at Pacific University. “It doesn’t take very long for police officers’ well-being to erode dramatically,” he adds, ticking off studies that track early mortality and cardiovascular issues among public safety professionals.
Through the organization Mindful Badge, Goerling teaches several police departments in the Portland area and in Northern California how mindfulness can better cops’ performance: sharpening their attention to life-or-death details, cultivating empathy and compassion that’s crucial for stops and searches and building resilience before encountering trauma. The theory goes that once an officer receives mental training, he can sense when a stressor in his environment is activating his flight-or-flight reactions and then check those instincts. “If a police officer is in their own crisis,” Goerling suggests, “they’re not going to meet that person in a way that’s totally effective.” The lieutenant is aware mindfulness isn’t a cure-all for “a landscape of suffering,” but he believes it’s a first step to changing a “broken” police culture that takes its officers’ health for granted.

6. Athletic Competition

Where: San Diego, Calif.
BMX bikers may not seem like a group that’s primed for meditation, but when an elite biker stuttered with anxiety at the starting line, his coach James Herrera looked into any way to solve the problem of managing stress before a high-stakes event. Herrera soon got in touch with the Center for Mindfulness at the University of California, San Diego, and he signed up his seven-man team for a small study into the effects of meditation on “very healthy guys who are at the top of their sport,” lead author Lori Haase tells NationSwell. Over seven weeks, the bikers practiced a normal mindfulness routine, but with extra impediments like having their hands submerged in a bucket of icy water to teach them to feel the sensation of pain, rather than reacting to it cognitively. As the weeks went on, their bodies seemed to prepare for a physical shock, without an accompanying psychological panic. In other words, participants’ bodies were so amped up and hyperaware that they didn’t need to react as strongly to the stressor itself compared to an average person. The study didn’t test whether it made them faster on the course, but it seemed to suggest that reaction times could be sped up by using mindfulness to slow down.

7. Military

Where: Honolulu, Hawaii
Like cops, members of the military have much to gain from situational awareness. A couple seconds’ of lead-time for a soldier to notice someone in a bulky jacket running into a public square could prevent a suicide bomb from taking out dozens of civilians and comrades abroad. But that’s not all mindfulness is good for in a service member’s line of duty.
Before soldiers even leave home, they must deal with leaving family and putting other aspects of their lives on hold. To prepare soldiers for deployment, University of Miami neuroscientist Amishi Jha offered mindfulness trainings at an Army outpost on Oahu to soldiers heading to Afghanistan. To fit the program into an already crowded training regimen, Jha drastically cut down the standard 40-hour model to an eight-hour practice scattered throughout eight weeks. Despite the stress of leaving that could sap the mind’s attention and working memory — “everything they need to do the job well when they’re there,” Jha notes — the mindfulness trainings prevented their minds from wandering. Tentative research Jha’s still conducting suggests those benefits persist post-deployment. Her session was just like boot camp, Jha found, only for the brain.

MORE: How Meditation Is Bringing Calm to San Francisco’s Toughest Schools

These Teach for America Graduates Left the Classroom. But They Didn’t Forget About the Kids

Every year since 1990, in what is practically a fall tradition, idealistic college grads arrive in public school classrooms in New York City, Los Angeles and all of Teach for America’s 52 regions in between. Straight from seven to 10 weeks of summer training, these TFA corps members commit to work for two years in unfamiliar schools that desperately need strong educators. After that, they’re free to leave the classroom. While the majority of TFA’s 42,000 alumni do continue teaching, the program’s turnover rate has led some to question its success.
“My argument was: let’s take the resources you’re investing in a corps member — tens of thousands of dollars per year — and put that into professional development for training current staff on campuses,” says Robert Schwartz, a TFA alumnus and advisor at the nonprofit New Teacher Center. “You’ll see teachers that are going to stick around longer and are really invested in the community.” Schwartz’s alternative plan is voiced commonly in education circles, and it’s mild in comparison to some pointed criticism of TFA. Sarah Matsui, author of a book that gives TFA a negative assessment, argues to Jacobin that the program is mere resume fodder for Ivy League students on the way to jobs at well-heeled consulting firms like Deloitte and Boston Consulting Group. In response, TFA’s spokesperson Takirra Winfield points out to NationSwell that 84 percent of alumni continue to work in fields related to education or serving low-income communities.
But perhaps the debate over retention rates misses the point entirely. TFA’s mission statement, after all, doesn’t reference teaching at all. Instead, the organization aims to enlist, develop and mobilize “our nation’s most promising future leaders” in pursuit of a larger movement for educational equity. NationSwell explored how five TFA alums are accomplishing that outside the classroom.

In April, Sekou Biddle welcomes guests to the UNCF Education Summit, held in Atlanta.

Sekou Biddle, United Negro College Fund

A member of the United Negro College Fund’s leadership team, Biddle has always prized service, but as an aspiring management consultant at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, he figured giving back was something he’d do as a brief detour on the road to business school. Thinking that TFA sounded like an impactful way to give younger students the same educational opportunities he’d been afforded, Biddle joined the corps in 1993 and stayed in the classroom for a decade.
After, Biddle “wanted to share the things [he] had learned” and transitioned to policymaking as a school board representative and city council appointee in his hometown, Washington, D.C. He says his TFA experience informed his votes and taught him empathy for teachers, who throw themselves into a “180-day marathon grind,” and parents, whom schools too often failed. He keeps in mind one phone call on which a dad told him, “This is the first time someone has ever called to say something good about my child,” Biddle recalls. “I was struck by the power of a relatively simple thing. Just a call certainly had an impact on this parent’s perception on what the relationship with a school and teacher could be.”
In his current role as UNCF’s vice president of advocacy, Biddle engages local leaders and school administrators with the same personal touch. Explaining the achievement gap, he lobbies for more academic and financial support for minority students, ultimately to increase the number of black college graduates. “I thought I was going to do [TFA] for a few years and feel I had done some good in the world, put enough in the bank and be ready to move on,” Biddle says. “I committed to doing two years, and 22 years later, I’m still at it.”

Mike Feinberg of the KIPP Foundation.

Mike Feinberg, KIPP Schools

While working in the classroom, Mike Feinberg, who co-founded KIPP, America’s largest network of charter schools (with 183 and counting), with fellow TFA alum Dave Levin, became “acutely aware that our students were not receiving an education that would set them up for success in college and life,” so late one night he and Levin laid out plans for a new educational model that refused to let children’s “demographics define their destiny.”
As a teacher, Feinberg saw firsthand student accomplishments that were a result of the belief that kids could and would learn. “If we believe there are solutions to problems, we can create a learning environment where we set high expectations for our students and they not only meet them, but surpass them.” Feinberg readily admits that growing up in poverty creates enormous challenges, but he reaffirms the principle that, if given a chance, education can level the playing field for those students. TFA “shaped my understanding of what education and social justice could accomplish,” he says.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild (orange shirt) and Andrew Greenhill leading a Bike-to-Work Week ride.

Andrew Greenhill, City of Tucson

Now chief of staff for the mayor of Tucson, Ariz., Greenhill entered a career in government after TFA, inspired to take a broader look at how the delivery of public services can be improved. During his time as a teacher, in addition to the regular curriculum, he seemed to be teaching an impromptu course on how to make it in America. “Students looked to me for all kinds of assistance and information. Most were new arrivals in the country,” he recalls of his middle school class. Greenhill took families to free healthcare clinics, to the library to check out books, to Western Union to send money home and even to the supermarket to show them how to ring up groceries. That non-traditional teaching translated well to local government, where Greenhill has “played a role in helping to understand and support and in some cases even streamline the different programs provided by the city and local nonprofits.”
“I think the more people know about how the education system works, the better informed they will be in helping community-wide efforts, whether they’re inside the classroom, an administrator or a citizen participating in the debates that we have at the local and national level about education,” he says. As a city official, Greenhill doesn’t believe he’s given up on his old students; in fact, he’s still trying to take care of their day-to-day needs, so that classroom teachers can stick to teaching.

Olympian Tim Morehouse works with students.

Tim Morehouse, Olympic fencer

A silver medal-winning fencer at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Tim Morehouse has a stellar pedigree to match the perceived elitism of his sport. He attended a rigorous prep school in the Bronx (where tuition today costs $40,660) and Brandeis University, a top-ranked liberal arts college in Massachusetts. It wasn’t until Morehouse signed up for TFA in 2000 that he saw how different his path could have been. Assigned to teach seventh grade at a public school six blocks from where he grew up in upper Manhattan, Morehouse realized how privileged his education had been, compared to the schooling that most children receive.
Because of his TFA experience, Morehouse returned to public schools in Washington Heights and Harlem before the 2012 London Olympic Games to coach fencing, with the hope of giving students an extracurricular to bolster their college applications and a chance at athletic scholarships. His foundation, Fencing in the Schools, last year served 15,000 students in 11 states. Like TFA, Morehouse recruited other Olympic fencers to teach kids the sport and mentor the youngsters in life skills. He says he hopes the foundation will help kids not only get to college, but also succeed there. And who knows? “Maybe they can even go to the Olympics,” he says.

Jessica Stewart welcomes guests to a debate on education issues between Oakland, Calif., mayoral candidates.

Jessica Stewart, Great Oakland Public Schools

A onetime political junkie and head of the College Democrats at Auburn University in Alabama, Stewart moved to Oakland, Calif., to teach sixth-grade math in 2005 and fell head over heels for the Bay Area City. Politics took a backseat to her work in the classroom, but Stewart’s activist streak resurfaced in 2008 when the city’s superintendent threatened to close 17 schools and a budget crisis post-financial crash generated a multi-million dollar budget shortfall.
Great Oakland Public Schools, where Stewart is senior managing director, was founded in the wake of those disasters and went on to become a major voice in city politics. In 2012, the coalition endorsed three people running for seats on the school board. “To support our candidates, we had 300 volunteers do 60,000 phone calls and 12,000 door knocks,” Stewart recalls. “On any given night in October 2012, walking into the office, you’d see people sitting on the floor (because we only had five staff members at the time) talking to voters. It would be a student next to a principal next to a parent next to a teacher. It was so inspiring to see people coming together to fight for equality.” All three candidates won soundly, but Stewart isn’t resting on her laurels, explaining, “There is still so much work to be done in our education system.”
Editors’ note: This story originally stated that Teach for America was founded in 1989. We apologize for the error.

When Cities Get Connected, Civic Engagement Improves

With tighter budgets and fewer resources, local governments are turning to technology to stay connected to residents and improve their systems. According to the Digital Cities Survey published by Government Technology magazine, four major tech trends are visible across most of the participants, which range from cities with populations of 50,000 to more than a million.
1. Open data
Transparency is important for governments and thanks to technology, it’s easier to achieve than ever. Leading the pack of cities with easily accessible data records is New York City. The Big Apple started its open data system in 2012 and now has 1,300 data sets available for viewing. Chicago ranks second with over 600 data sets, while San Francisco scores the highest rating in U.S. Open Data Census for open data quality.
Open data isn’t limited to the country’s biggest cities, however, as mid-size Tacoma, Wash., offers 40 data sets and Ann Arbor, Mich,. has financial transparency data that is updated daily, according to Governing.
2. Stat programs and data analytics
These types of initiatives originated in the 1980s with the NYPD merging data with staff feedback, but have expanded to other cities. Louisville, Ky., now has Louiestat, which is used to spot weaknesses in performance and cut the city’s bill for unscheduled employee overtime.
Governing reports that data analytics are also a popular tool to gauge performance. In Denver, Phoenix and Jacksonville, Fla., local governments use them to sort through all their data sets in search of patterns that can be used for better decision-making.
3. Online citizen engagement
As social media becomes more prevalent in daily life, governments are getting on board to stay connected. Through social media sites and online surveys, local governments are using social media to engage their residents in local issues.
One such city is Avondale, Ariz. (population of 78,822), which connects a mobile app and an online forum for citizen use. Citizens can post ideas on the forum and then residents can vote yay or nay.
4. Geographic information systems
Although it’s been around for a long time, cities are updating the function of GIS to help make financial decisions that will, in turn, improve performance, public transit and public safety as well as organize social service and citizens engagement activities.
Augusta, Ga., recently won an award for its transit maps, while in Sugar Land, Texas, GIS is used for economic development and citizen engagement with 92 percent survey respondents citywide.
Based on all this, it seems that cities have embraced the tech craze.
MORE: Which 3 Cities are Fighting Poverty Through a Tech Cohort?

The Mobile Health Clinic That’s Been Helping the Poor for 40 Years

In 1976, Dr. Augusto Ortiz and his wife Martha looked to a donated school bus as a means to achieve their dream of providing free medical care to the poor of Tucson, Ariz.
Today, The University of Arizona Mobile Health Program (MHP) visits communities in a big, shiny trailer stocked with all the amenities of a regular health clinic — including an EKG — but the spirit behind it remains the same 40 years later.
The MHP makes regular rounds of communities in southern Arizona, serving about 2,400 uninsured and under-insured people, plus those that don’t have regular access to health facilities. Additionally, since 2003, the MHP has run group prenatal care appointments for expectant mothers, serving many who would never have received the important care otherwise and resulting in the delivery of more than 200 healthy babies.
Still, for all the poor that have been helped by the MHP, the impact on doctors-in-training may even be greater. The clinic is staffed with medical residents and students in public health, pre-med and pre-dental programs at the University of Arizona. Tammie Bassford, head of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University, tells Linda Valdez of AZ Central, “It has a profound impact on students.”
Bassford recalls one time when MHP staffers asked a patient if she needed any help with anything besides her health. She told them that she lacked a pot big enough to cook beans for everyone in her family. The MHP was happy to provide her with one.
Dr. Ortiz died at age 90 in 2007, but his wife Martha, now 90, is still involved in fundraising for the mobile health clinic that they founded. She believes in helping the poor for purposes of altruism, but also for the practical reason of preventing the spread of disease. “If somebody is standing next to you in the grocery line and coughing, it’s possible they have tuberculosis, and don’t know because they can’t get to a doctor,” she tells Valdez.
MORE: How A Big Blue Bus is Saving Needy Children Nationwide

Can You Grow All Your Food in an Old Swimming Pool?

With the rise of green living, it seems like gardens are popping up everywhere: in backyards and abandoned lots and on rooftops. However, when the McClung family moved into their Mesa, Ariz. home in 2009, they took one look at the empty swimming pool in their backyard and saw an opportunity for something completely unique.
They turned their swimming hole into something they’ve dubbed the Garden Pool, and over the past five years, it’s changed the McClung’s life, as well as foster a whole new sustainability movement.
So what exactly is a Garden Pool?
It’s a former swimming pool turned closed-loop ecosystem boasting everything from broccoli and potatoes to sorghum and wheat to chickens, tilapia, algae and duckweed. The food produced in the McClung’s Garden Pool is enough to feed their family of five —  cutting up to three-quarters of their monthly grocery bill.
Instead of soil, the Garden Pool grows its plants in clay pellets or coconut coir. Any excess moisture drops from it into the pond below, which, combined with a rain catchment system, means that the garden requires only a small fraction of watering compared to what is usually needed in a conventional garden. A transparent plastic roof covers the in-ground pool.
In addition to less watering, the Garden Pool doesn’t need commercial fertilizer, either. That’s because the chicken excrement falls through a wire mesh covering a portion of the pond, feeding the algae and duckweed that grows in it. In turn, the tilapia living in the pond then consume those plants and release their nitrogen-rich feces. Using a solar-powered electric pump, this enriched fish-water is funneled into the hydroponics system which grows the family’s produce.
Sounds complicated, right?  The McClungs assure that it actually isn’t as difficult as it seems. In fact, over the past five years, they’ve brought garden pools to a dozen other homes in and around Phoenix. And that’s just the beginning, since Garden Pool is now a certified 501(c)3 nonprofit, it’s helping people across the country and globe start their own.
This past spring, Garden Pool joined forces with Naturopaths Without Borders and traveled to Haiti to construct a garden pool. The group also helped start about three dozen more across the country — from Palm Springs to Toledo to Florida.
But you don’t need Dennis and Daniella McClung around to create your own Garden Pond, since the couple offers a number of free online tutorials such as “Getting Started in Barrelponics” and “Growing Duckweed,” plus a 117-page how-to book containing detailed instructions, pictures, diagrams and links to video tutorials.
The McClungs are nowhere near finished — recently, they added pygmy goats as well as various fruit and nut trees to their Garden Pool.
For Dennis, doing this work is a dream come true.
“I love it,” he told Grist. “I dream about it. What inspires me is watching families’ lives being changed, watching communities change, observing the change.”
Not bad for a guy who started with an empty swimming pool, right?
MORE: The Surprising Second Life of Urine

Do Ants Hold the Key to Reducing Pollution?

Ants — some bite, some eat wood and others just come crawling when there’s food left out on the counter. Turns out, however, that these insects (that most of us find downright annoying) could be helpful in reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
How so?
A recent study from Arizona State University, conducted by geology professor Ronald Dorn, found that the presence of ants can cause certain rocks to capture carbon dioxide, therefore preventing it from going into the atmosphere. This CO2 absorption isn’t small either. Ants can increase the natural amount a rock takes in by up to 335 times.
What’s the secret to this powerful partnership? Well, even Dorn doesn’t quite seem to know yet. In fact, he basically discovered the connection by accident. Back in the early 1990s, he was conducting a study about the weathering of minerals, and one of the rocks he was studying happened to become ant-infested. The bugs were annoying to him, pouring out whenever he tried to drill for a sample. Over time, however, he realized their effect on capturing carbon dioxide.
Even without the help of insects, though, rocks absorb a lot of carbon from the air.
The dangerous polluter seeps into calcium and magnesium deposits found in many rocks, which then transforms into limestone or dolomite. If it weren’t for rocks taking in carbon, our earth would be a whole lot warmer and air dirtier than it already is.
“When I take students on field trips, I make them kiss the limestone, because that limestone is just CO2 that’s just locked up in rocks and how Earth has remained habitable,” Dorn told Scientific American.
With carbon-rich rock already having contributed so much to our environment, the effect of ants speeding up the process could be huge. After all, there’s an estimated 10 trillion of the tiny insects on earth at our disposal. Even better would be if researchers could figure out exactly what the ants do to the rock to make it absorb carbon faster. Then, the solution could be mass-produced.
Until that’s the case, we’ll just have to settle for welcoming ants into our yards and enjoying our little patch of cleaner air.
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