Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Injustice

Border Voices: Danya

Cover image for podcast episode

In these “Border Voices” bonus episodes, we feature shorter stories spotlighting people who identify as transborder, fronterizx or simply have something to say about how the U.S.-Mexico border has changed their lives.

Today, meet Danya Gresham, an American expat who left behind her life in the U.S. so she could help take care of orphaned kids in Mexico.

Connect with Danya here:
https://www.buildtherefuge.com/
https://www.facebook.com/TheRefugeTJ

Follow “Port of Entry” online at www.portofentrypod.org, or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/portofentrypodcast) or Instagram (www.instagram.com/portofentrypod).
Support our work at www.kpbs.org/donate. Search “Port of Entry” in the gifts section to get our sling bag as a thank-you gift. If your business or nonprofit wants to sponsor our show, email podcasts@kpbs.org.
Text or call the "Port of Entry" team at 619-452-0228‬ anytime with questions or comments about the show.

Hey, I’m Alan Lilenthal and you’re listening to “Port of Entry..”

We’re back with another quick Border Voices episode.

We came across the story you’re about to hear while putting together our recent series on cross-border love stories.

It’s about the kind of love that can push you to drop everything, and completely change your life...

BEAT

OK...so...six years ago…

Danya Gresham left behind her life as a real estate broker in Las Vegas...

And started a new life...here...at the border…

Danya Audio Diary Clip 1
it's quiet right now. We're on the East side of Tijuana...

We asked Danya to record an audio diary for us…

To sorta show us what a typical day is like for her…

BEAT
Danya Audio Diary Clip 1
So it is about, I don't know if I'm rushing, like maybe a minute walk from my apartment to the, Casa Hogar and.through this neighborhood that I have grown to...yeah, love, I guess.

BEAT
These days...Danya’s life revolves around the Casa Hogar she and her friend started back in 20-15.
It’s essentially a group home for kids...an orphanage...
DANYAKIDAMBI_3
Danya talking to kid.
The Casa Hogar Danya helps run houses up to 25 kids.
Right now, 12 kids call it home..including this little guy you hear jumping on a trampoline outside the orphanage...
DANYAKIDAMBI_1 FADE
Sammy saying Danya….

BEAT
Danya Audio Diary Clip 2
It's Danya it is now 7:31. I am just going into the house..There shouldn't be any kids yet….

Until recently, Danya lived at the orphanage in Tijuana with the kids.

But...over the holidays, she finally raised enough money from friends, family and supporters to pay for a small apartment just a few blocks away.

So now she walks to work…

The day Danya recorded her audio diary, she had the early shift...

Dany Audio Diary Clip 7
So right now it's super quiet here. Um, Maria is up…. Maria and her sister Rose are usually the first ones up. They have to take medicine, uh, at eight o'clock. So let's see what's going on in the house. So, Nope, I didn't think so. Nobody's up yet. So we're going to take a few minutes and get situated. Okay. Get the girls, their medicine, and then we'll start waking kids up.

After the kids get up…

They make their beds and do some other cleaning and chores...

BEAT

Danya Audio Diary Clip 3
Except Sammy, Sammy's not cleaning…...Oh, Santa Claus brought the zombies. Okay. So Sammy's not cleaning semi clean right now with me at the table.

BEAT

Danya Audio Diary Clip 2.5
so I'm in charge of breakfast and getting the girls up today. And so, because I'm in charge of breakfast, we're having cold cereal. So that's what I'm about to do. I'm about to make some powdered milk up. So it doesn't taste like powdered milk. And they're going to eat sugaritas and choco krispies, and that's going to be breakfast today because Michelle is in charge of the wonderful home cooked meals and I'm in charge of the cold cereal

After breakfast, Danya often does paperwork….

Then she takes kids to their psychiatry and therapy appointments…

She’ll help clean, cook and, as often as she can..she’ll sit down to play with kids like Sammy.

DANYAKIDAMBI2
Sammy talking to Danya...telling her about a dream where Danya was his mom.

BEAT

The day Danya recorded was actually supposed to be one of her days off…

So, she was set to leave early…

Buuuuut that didn’t happen.

Danya Audio Diary Clip 4
So I'm leaving the house right now, because I was only supposed to be here until one. But not that that was a pipe dream, but one of our girls, um, you know, she had their, we call them barinches, and they're stronger than a temper tantrum. They're up along the lines of a fit kind of well, along that line…. So, um, I am going to go home now though, and, uh, try to relax. A little bit before I have a meeting at two with a church um, about somehow partnering with us or being involved with us somehow. So we have a zoom meeting, so my days are not that exciting, but that's what today is. And then I'll be back tomorrow morning.

BEAT FADE

Orphanages in Mexico get very little government support.

So, it’s up to people like Danya to raise money to keep them going…

Mostly through building relationships with churches in the U.S.

It’s a lot of pressure…

I mean...imagine, just constantly having to ask people to pitch in......every...single...day…

Danya Gresham Clip 30
So….it's hard….It's hard…..

Danya and the other folks who help run the casa hogar…

They have all these little lives depending on them….

Not only to house... feed… and educate them..

But to love them, too…

BEAT

Danya Gresham Clip 35
The love is that...these kids, they don't have anybody that's going to stand up for them... except us.
BEAT

So...how exactly did Danya end up here….in Tijuana….taking care of these kids?

We’ll trace her path...after a quick break.

BEAT FADE

MIDROLL 1

SILENCE

Danya Gresham says it was a church trip, decades ago, that first started her on a path to Mexico.

Danya Gresham Clip 36
I went on a mission trip when I was in high school, down to San Canteen to like the farm area down here.
Danya Gresham Clip 5
And I don't know, there was just something about like, uh, Something stuck with me, you know?

BEAT

Danya says she knew she’d be back someday.

She says it just...felt like something she was supposed to do…

she sorta interpreted the feeling as a sign from God.

But..then...life took an unexpected turn.

BEAT

Danya Gresham Clip 16
my daughter was born, uh, with this, with cerebral palsy and I was just really angry. I was like, dude, I just spent all my life going to church and teaching Sunday school, doing all these really great things. And then my daughter's going to be born and you can't even keep her breathing for five minutes so that she doesn't have any problems. Um, so I spent like the next 19 years just. Not like there's no, God, but just like, you know what? I don't even need you. If you're not even going to help me do this, I don't even need you. And then like every bad thing that happened was just like, Oh, well, great. You can't even fix that. You can't even do that. Thank you so much for not even doing that.

Danya lost... her connection to God…

And, that connection she had felt with Mexico? It disappeared, too…

Her anger towards god stuck with her for years.

BEAT

Meanwhile, she had another kid, a baby boy…

She got married and divorced twice…

And became a successful real estate broker in Vegas…

But...she says she couldn’t escape this huge void she felt in her life...

For years, she tried to fill that void with things that just kept leaving her feeling empty...

Danya Gresham Clip 38
I was partying. Like I was drinking. I was doing a bunch of stupid stuff.

As someone who was raised religious…

Danya eventually realized what she was really missing was...her relationship to God.

And one day years later...kinda out of nowhere...that relationship was reignited.

Danya Gresham Clip 17
It was like, all of a sudden, God was like, you're done. I need you to be done with this temper tantrum that you're having, because I have stuff for you to do. Um, and I've given you your space, like, like this whole thing, like sometimes you hear about people talking like, and that's when the journey started to not be mad. No, I was just done. I was just done being mad and I went back to church and I started working with kids and I started kind of learning just about like, More of the relationship part of it, like my idea of God was wrong and that was affecting how I, how I dealt with him, what I did and everything.

Danya says she came to understand that serving God wasn’t about earning rewards….like if I do everything right, God will give me a good life...

Instead, she settled more into a role of doing things...good things...because that’s what God would do…

And that void of hers...it started filling up….

Especially when she shifted her focus back to doing some good in Mexico.

BEAT FADE

Danya and her friend Michelle Wilson started traveling to Tijuana to volunteer at some of the orphanages here.

Danya Gresham Clip 6
So we got together, and we started coming down, working with another orphanage down here and we just saw it and we're like, there's gotta be a better way to do this.

BEAT

Michelle and Danya found themselves wanting to see the kids get more than just their basic needs met…

Danya Gresham Clip 7
they're doing good things, but the measure of success is off. I think, success for us is the kids get holistically healthy, like mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically. , And that's our Mark of success. It seems sometimes that the mark of success is just to keep them alive

Before too long...Danya says she realized that instead of just hoping for the change she wanted to see in the orphanages…

She needed to be the change.

BEAT

So...one day...back in 2014...Danya pitched the idea of moving to Mexico and opening up an orphanage to her friend Michelle.

Danya Gresham Clip 8
And she's like, I ain't moving to Mexico, I will totally support you.. Um,

But... Danya just would not give up.

Danya Gresham Clip 9
and we sat down at a restaurant one day in Vegas and I kind of drew out this vision that I had of what the property could look like and how it looked. And I, I wrote the name across the top of the refuge and I turned it around and she's like, ah, crap, we're all moving to Mexico. Huh? And I'm like, yeah, I think we are. And we did.

BEAT FADE

So...by 2015, Michelle and Danya made their move to Mexico.

They found a large house with lots of rooms for rent near the Otay Port of Entry in Tijuana…

Navigated the licensing and permitting system for opening up a group home for kids…

And then, through a mix of government placements and parents relinquishing their custody...they took in their first few kids.

BEAT

The two pretty quickly figured out it took about 5,000 dollars a month to keep their new Casa Hogar running.

And at first, it was a real struggle.

Danya Gresham Clip 18
there have been months in the past where we get down to like the last minute and I'm like, dude, you guys, I got to pay the power bill. I don't know how we're going to pay it.

BEAT

But...they kept at it.

And Danya says somehow, someway, they’re always able to keep the lights on.

Danya Clip 39
it's always, there's always, always, always been enough. We've never not been able to pay bills. We've never not been able to buy food.
Danya Gresham Clip 19
Does that mean we have like thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in the bank? No, we don't. We generally have just as much as we need, but there is always enough and sometimes there's some extra,

BEAT

Danya didn’t just leave behind a job so she could give kids in Tijuana the love she knew they deserved…

She also had to leave behind her disabled daughter...

Both her kids were grown by the time she left for Mexico…

So...she made the decision to put her daughter in a group home…

It’s a decision she doesn’t regret at all…

Danya says her daughter actually wanted to get out on her own…

Her daughter was happy….

BEAT

But in 2017… Danya’s daughter caught pneumonia…

Her heart just couldn’t take it..

And...she passed away.

Danya Gresham Clip 15
it was tough. It was a little bit of a tough thing. Yeah.

BEAT FADE

Alan Danya Interview Clip 1
Has having relationships with all these kids over the years, has, has that, uh, relieved some of the pain in your heart from the death... having your daughter pass away.
Danya Gresham Clip 37
I think had my daughter died five years ago before we were down here, it would have been horribly devastating, but this way it still, it was painful, but it's not, it hasn't taken me out of the game.

BEAT

Danya says she doesn’t have the bandwidth to go look for romantic love at this point in her life….

But she says it’s fine.

Because, for now, she gets most everything she needs from taking care of these kids.

And that void that she felt in the past…

Danya says it’s finally been totally filled…

She says there’s nothing better than seeing the kids thrive…

Danya Gresham Clip 33
so we had this boy, we asked him what he wanted to be when you grew up. And his, big desire when he first came here was he wanted to collect metal cans from the road. That's what he wanted to do when he grew up, because that's what he had seen his dad deal. And so he thought that that must be a perfectly acceptable thing to do. He actually lived with us for a number of years. And by the time he was done here, he wanted to be, depending on what day you asked him he wanted to be an architect or an astronaut. One of the two, like he had realized that there was things outside of where he grew up that were possible to do.
Danya Gresham Clip 34
And that's really the coolest thing.

BEAT

To connect with Danya, check out buildtherefuge dot com, or go to facebook dot com slash TheRefugeTJ.

Right now, Danya is busy raising money and gathering supplies for a quinceanera celebration for one of the girls in the orphanage.

BEAT FADE TRANSITION

Port of Entry is written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the co-producer and director of sound design. Alisa Barba edited this episode. Lisa Morissette is operations manager and John Decker is associate general manager of content.

This program is made possible (in part) by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people."

I’m Alan Lilienthal, thanks for listening.

Port of Entry podcast branding

Port of Entry

These are cross-border stories that connect us. Border people often inhabit this in-between place. From KPBS and PRX, “Port of Entry” tells personal stories from this place — stories of love, hope, struggle and survival from border crossers, fronterizxs and other people whose lives are shaped by the wall. Rooted in San Diego with tendrils reaching into Tijuana. Hosted by Alan Lilienthal, produced by Kinsee Morlan and sound design by Emily Jankowski.