Teens change lives in Tijuana, one house at a time

By Manny Lopez

A caravan of vehicles loaded with volunteers from La Jolla High School's Interact club heads south toward the U.S.-Mexican border on its way to build homes for the poor in the colonias of Tijuana. As they pass through the busiest land border crossing on earth, a sign above reads "Aqui Empieza La Patria." The Mexican government's official English translation is, "Gateway to Mexico." The sign may as well read "Gateway to Another World," complete with the sights, sounds and smells.

For the uninitiated, very little could prepare them for what lies ahead.

"Perhaps it's because one minute you're in the richest, most powerful country in the world and the next, you're in a third world country, staring directly into the face of extreme poverty," said Itto Kabbage, a LJHS sophomore and a veteran of numerous trips to the area.

Although the route has changed and the trip has been made shorter due to a new, recently opened road, these volunteers are far away from the pharmacies, taco stands and souvenir shops of Avenida Revolucion. The winding roads to the colonias are lined with trash and the fresh carcasses of animals that were probably too sick to make it across the road in search of food. Along the route to the colonias, someone points out a shrine dedicated to Jesus Malverde, the unofficial patron saint of drug traffickers who is credited with being one of the first growers of marijuana in the area.

As they approach their destination, the paved roads turn into badly rutted dirt roads. A few more turns and they reach the sight of the day's build.

"These used to be squatters camps, but now the government has offered to sell small plots to those who can afford them," said Alfredo d'Escragnolli of Project Mercy, who will be leading today's volunteers.

The architecture certainly suggests an environment of necessity.

Poverty is the defining feature in the colonias. Homes in these areas are usually built from large shipping crates, discarded scraps of wood and metal, cardboard, plastic sheeting and even trash bags, which offer no protection against the elements. Dirt floors are the norm. Entire families cram into these single-room shanties, some without a roof.

There is no infrastructure to support indoor plumbing or electricity, so water is trucked in daily and power must be stolen from public lamp posts while city officials turn a blind eye and treat the matter as an unofficial subsidy. The city doesn't pick up trash, so it is burned or strewn along the hillsides. There are no recreational facilities, parks or sidewalks. Children live and play right by a working railway.

The students of La Jolla High have come with a mission and a plan. The mission is to change the world, the plan is to do it one house at a time, said club president Olivia Jones. Interact is the LJHS community service club sponsored and guided by the La Jolla Rotary Club.

"There's nothing like leaving your comfort zone to make you realize how you fit into the world around you," said Cal Mann, advisor to the club.

In the past 18 months, the students of Interact have built six homes. They are expecting to build two to three more by next spring. It is no an easy task. Each home costs roughly $3,500 to build. But that doesn't deter this socially conscious group of individuals who consider it a duty to help others in need.

"These kids are really stepping up," Mann said.

As the group piles out of the vehicles, they are greeted by the families who will be the beneficiaries of the day's efforts. On this trip, Itto Kabbage sees kids for whom the group has built a home in the past.

"I actually got to see those same kids again, and they remembered me and we talked again," she said. "It was just really great to see them doing OK."

As the day wears on, volunteers are hard at work racing against the setting sun. There are no power tools on this build. Everything must be done by hand. Each home is 16 feet by 20 feet and built entirely of wood, atop a concrete foundation, with an upstairs sleeping loft. It takes the team one whole day to construct a house from start to finish.

The group's defining moment comes at the end of the day, when the final nail has been hammered and the keys to a brand new home are handed to the recipient family.

"It's the most gratifying feeling you can get," said Allen d'Escragnolli, who has been building homes in Tijuana for the past 11 years with Project Mercy and is the former president of Interact.

For more information on Project Mercy, go to www.projectmercy.net.

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