Supporting the Tijuana Community
With the blessing of EnergyLink, I’ve been able to take a few months off my normal work duties to volunteer overseas. I’m currently a couple of kilometres south of San Diego and the US border, in Baja California, Mexico. In a coastal town neighbouring on Tijuana, we’re based at Saint Innocent’s Orphanage from where Project Mexico runs much of its practical operations.
In Mexico, stop and yield signs are mostly suggestions, road rules are lightly enforced, and roads themselves are made of potholes. Yet interestingly, I feel safer riding around in the bed of a pickup truck than driving around in Australia or the US. People are more attentive and quite patient with other road users and pedestrians, despite frequent traffic. Instead of an obsession with being in the right, drivers are more concerned with avoiding accidents, it just happens to look a bit chaotic along busy roads and intersections. Another impressive dynamic has been the nearly seamless use of both Mexican Pesos and US Dollars side by side, with almost all businesses accomodating both currencies in this city neighbouring the US.
The ranch is a place full of joy with a loving environment for the boys who live here, the staff, and volunteers who visit. There are 10 ranch dogs here, each with their own personality; there’s Momo and Gala, Cosmo and Riley, Anthony, Nyssa, Sochi, and Max, and my favourite ranch dog of all, Roo. Funnily enough, he looks a bit like a kangaroo, with a straw-coloured, short-haired coat, and a scrunched kangaroo face. But as a silly guy, he loves to cause us grief by running out in front of our trucks and cars when we’re driving around on-ranch.
It’s been fun bunking in the intern housing. The 15 of us interns play host to the volunteer groups that come through from parishes all across the United States and help ensure that all operations run smoothly through the Summer. Each group stays for seven days, including four build days, a rest day, and arrival/departure days. When we’re not building or preparing for new groups, there’s downtime to play sports with the boys, whether it’s soccer, basketball, frisbee, volleyball or Capture the Flag. We’ve also spent a few days off-ranch with trampolines at Flyers, splashing around at the waterpark El Vergel, helping at the local soup kitchen Desayunador, bushwalking in the mountains at sunrise, and relaxing at the beach. I even had an opportunity to be a guest speaker about Australia as it fit into an English lesson for the older boys here.
Summer 2017 marks the start of a new house design, an update after 28 years of a wood-based house frame. With the new design it’s been great to provide some input on improving the process of building as we work out the kinks and make tweaks. Our new design allows us to provide a larger shell, with greater potential and options as the family molds it into their home. Occasionally, we’ve been able to see how families have customised previous builds, whether through paint choice, tiling, interior walls, insulation, electricity and plumbing, or extending the structure for added space.
Providing a shell rather than a completely furnished home allows us to focus on providing a quality build: secure, safe, and watertight. At the same time it encourages the family to take ownership in making it their own, establishing a partnership effort rather than a handout.
Here in the Tijuana region, wealth disparity and poverty is evident with people living in makeshift housing and occasionally juxtaposed with a house that looks like it was taken from a Sydney suburb. Streets are often lined with half-built homes or businesses, and frequent abandoned buildings. One of the largest poverty challenges lies in the conditions for renters, with what appears to be slumlording at its worst. Rental homes might leak terribly, subjecting the tenants to unhealthy conditions of mold, fleas, and illnesses especially during the rainy season. The landlords refuse to fix issues such as leaky roofs nor allow the tenants to make any modifications themselves due to superstition. Coupled with low wages, rent, and land payments, families struggle to make ends meet while often trapped in tough to escape situations.
Much of what Project Mexico strives to do is improve the lives of people stuck in these situations, by providing them with a jumpstart. At the same time, it’s building empathy and love in the groups of volunteers who come to help their southern neighbours by expanding their perspectives and experiences.
At many of our homebuilding sites, we’ve been treated to a humbling experience of being served by those we aim to help, through their expressions of hospitality. The families have prepared delicious homemade meals of burritos, gorditas, fried chicken, and pizza, alongside generous refreshments and fruit, a gesture of kindness and great expense that they likely cannot afford but nonetheless important for them to express.
With the building process, there are some really interesting aspects and points where attention to detail is important for ensuring that the house is put together with structural integrity and a good watertight seal. In my next article, I’ll go through the updated design, build process, and details that I’ve found most interesting.
For more information on Project Mexico, please feel free to view their website. Additionally, donations to the Orphanage are always welcome and enable a continued home for the boys. Options for giving range from supporting the boys education and ongoing support of basics, to stocking the pantry and gifts at Christmas.