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HOME RUNS: La Jolla High Rotarians build houses for poor in Tijuana, Mexico

Finding the perfect $2 million split-level for a prospective La Jolla homebuyer is great, but it’s got nothing on building a house for a family of five living on $500 a year.

It’s easy to forget that La Jolla is only a 30-minute drive from a country where millions of people don’t get their basic needs met. So real-estate broker Craig Schniepp forces himself not to. Twice a year, he takes 20 La Jolla High School students down to Tijuana, Mexico to build houses for the poor. As part of the national Rotary Club youth program Interact, the La Jolla High School branch built its 30th house in April.

Craig Schniepp is a real-estate agent in La Jolla.
Craig Schniepp is a real-estate agent in La Jolla. COREY LEVITAN

“It fixes you, that’s for sure,” said Schniepp, a third-generation member of Rotary Club of La Jolla who took over Interact three years ago. “It makes you feel stupid about the things we complain about. They have no power, no water, no kitchens, nothing. And yet, you and I get up every morning and only have to walk a few feet to go sit on a toilet, then turn a handle and get hot water to shower.”

The pilgrimage

The group, which usually also includes 8-10 adult Rotarians, meets at 5:30 a.m. at the Mission Bay Visitors’ Center. They cross at Otai Mesa and proceed east until, according to Schniepp, “it turns to dirt — I mean there is nothing else out there.”

They’re led by a liaison from Project Mercy, a nonprofit organization that builds about 50 Mexican houses a year — 1,350 since 1996. Project Mercy pre-selects a family based on need, time spent on a waiting list and the legality of its land claim. (Most families living on plots are homesteaders who don’t own the land, so Project Mercy needs to confirm that the land is legally available for occupation.)

The family will usually have been living on the plot in a structure made of random scraps of plywood, plastic and linen. Actually, calling it a structure is a stretch.

“I’ve seen families of five living in an 8x10 crate, with a queen-size mattress laying in the dirt that they all sleep on,” Schniepp said. “So they essentially live outside.”

A photo taken by Schniepp shows how the families typically live prior to the Rotary Club home build. This woman poses in what functions as the home's kitchen.
A photo taken by Schniepp shows how the families typically live prior to the Rotary Club home build. This woman poses in what functions as her home's kitchen. COURTESY CRAIG SCHNIEPP

It always provides a sobering dose of perspective to witness the scope of the poverty — even when you’ve seen it before and know what to expect.

“I was very shocked to see that there were families living in those conditions, and I felt like I was taking everything for granted and I should really be grateful for everything I had,” said La Jolla High freshman Ella Islamian, who made her second home-build pilgrimage in April. “It’s a really eye-opening, humbling experience.”

About $6,000 worth of materials are waiting on site to construct a 500-square-foot house — one room with a loft upstairs — and an outhouse in back that must be filled with a pan from the family’s water supply (typically, a 55-gallon drum).

“It costs us an extra $900 to build an outhouse,” Schniepp said, “and let me tell you, having their own outhouse makes them king of the hill. Typically, they just dig a massive hole and put some plywood around it and squat.”

Construction instruction

Of course, most of the students have no idea how to build a house.

La Jolla High students paint the interior of a house.
La Jolla High students paint the interior of a house. COURTESY CRAIG SCHNIEPP

“I’d never really swung a hammer before — not the correct way, at least,” Islamian said.

Schniepp said he instructs the students by getting two-by-fours off the pile, lining them up, marking where the boards should be nailed and demonstrating how to nail them. Then the walls go up.

The kids all sign waivers beforehand, of course. “But they’re not let around the power tools,” Schniepp said. “My main job is to get every one of these kids home with all their fingers and toes.”

The houses don’t have sinks, bathrooms, electricity or even drywall, so they don’t take very long to construct.

“But the families are out of the rain, they have windows and they have a door that locks,” Schniepp said. “They don’t wake up on dirt.”

House-warming party

When the house is done, usually around 4 p.m., it’s time for the ritual of handing the family their new keys.

A finished Project Mercy home is always brightly colored, and the hills east of Tijuana are dotted by thousands of them.
A finished Project Mercy home is always brightly colored, and the hills east of Tijuana are dotted by thousands of them. COURTESY CRAIG SCHNIEPP

Frankly, the program is becoming almost too popular. According to Schniepp, 30 kids sign up for April’s build.

“I cut it off at 20 because I figured it would be too many and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” he said.

What the program can use more of is not volunteers but donations to fund future home builds. If you’re interested in giving, call Schniepp at (858) 775-3767.

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