Students change lives by building homes in Mexico

May 19, 2016 — by Stephen Ding and Austin Wang
jpeg mexico
Photo by Donated photo

They also learn practical construction skills.

Senior Delaney Milton couldn’t help but smile as she watched 12-year-old Michelle, a homeless child of two fruit sellers in Tijuana, Mexico, eat her lunch on the front steps of her new home.

Milton and the volunteer group had spent the week of Spring Break mixing concrete, sawing boards and constructing walls to build a home for Michelle’s family. But to Milton, seeing the young girl’s happiness made all the hard work worth it.

It's kind of hard to describe in words,” Milton said. “We were impacting their lives so much and they [were] impacting ours.”

From April 2-8, Milton and nine other Saratoga High and Redwood Middle School students travelled to Tijuana, with 140 other volunteers on an annual trip, coordinated by the Saratoga Federated Church. At the end of the week, the volunteers built 10 one-bedroom homes and four newly remodeled homes.

The volunteers gathered in San Diego on April 2 and traveled by bus on a 2-hour drive across the border. Upon arriving in Tijuana, they set up a large tented camp at the construction site, where they built  homes for an impoverished community that was ravaged by wildfires only a few weeks earlier.

On the first day, Milton met Michelle, who came to the camp each day to help build her own home and bring fruits for the volunteers. Milton soon found that the families in Tijuana were overwhelmingly grateful for the volunteers as “[they] tried to give as much as they could, even though they didn’t really have a whole lot.” Milton said they often tried to give them the fruit that they would normally sell to earn a living.

Families in Tijuana earn an average of $35-50 each week, and many do not have homes. Saratoga Federated Church pastor and trip organizer Tim Galleher said many volunteers were shocked by the contrasts between Mexico and the U.S..

Upon arriving to the campsite, volunteers saw a destitute city with dirty sidewalks, burned out buildings and a lack of gutters that occasionally caused floods to literally wash the town away.

Milton, who has gone on the home-building trip for the past nine years, is still taken aback each time she crosses the border.

“It’s really eye opening because it’s such a different way of living than from [Saratoga],” Milton said. “As soon as you drive across the border, you see houses that are literally made out of cardboard.”

The volunteer organization for the past 17 years has returned to Tijuana annually to improve the community’s housing. In this time, Tijuana now has 142 new homes as a result of their efforts.

“Think about how many homes that is in a city where there [was] nothing but ramshackle shacks,” Galleher said. “You really see a difference versus just going and volunteering one time at some place and never going back again.

The Tijuana community is truly appreciative of the church’s persistent efforts to help them. To show their support, many of the young Tijuana children come to the construction site with smiles to play with the volunteers and help with construction.

The volunteers mixed fresh concrete by hand; sawed, hammered and nailed wooden boards; put cement plaster (stucco) on the walls; and tarred roofs.

Galleher remembers the bright smiles on students’ faces as they learned some of the more interesting constructionskills.

“I think one of the most fun things is people being up on the roof, putting tar on the roof [and] doing lots of hammering and nailing,” Galleher said. “People enjoyed sawing too; everyone wants to know how to saw.”

Freshman Ines Picard, who attended the trip for the second year in a row, said she enjoyed the skills she learned such as making roofs out of paper and tar.

Picard remembered being surprised when she first learned about the fairly simple construction process and the tiny size of the houses they would build, which would each be one bedroom and one living room and fit a family of over three people. She also found that Saratoga students can learn much about gratitude and community engagement from the impoverished Tijuana people who were ecstatic to see their new homes.

“Even if the families are poor, they are still really happy, and despite the poverty they live in, they are much closer to each other,” Picard said.

Evidently, the trip did help to bond the volunteers’ community as the trip united people of all ages from around the Bay Area, with the youngest volunteer being 6 and the oldest 92. Over his 17 years of managing the trip, Galleher has found that, without fail, the volunteers always create tight-knit communities with people from all different ages and backgrounds and interacted with people they would not normally converse with.

In volunteering with other Bay Area residents, Milton found  that her years of service have not only left an impact on the impoverished families in Tijuana, but also created lasting memories for herself.

“[I remember] when [we] presented [the family] with the keys to the house, [everyone] was crying because they were so happy,” Milton said. “I felt content and grateful for the opportunity to get to know them and offer them something that actually mattered.”