MC FARLAND -- What would compel a group of seven Wisconsin suburbanites to leave the comfort of their homes and families and head to Juarez, Mexico, for one week to build a house?
The individual reasons varied, but perhaps the reasons for each deciding to take on this task are not as important as the outcome.
We traveled to Juarez on a house build arranged through Christ the King Parish in McFarland. This was the 22nd house over eight years completed under the auspices of Christ the King Parish.
Why go to Mexico?
It could be argued that a sufficient number of persons present in the United States are suffering through uncertain economic times with unemployment in the range of 10 percent. So why are we assisting others in Mexico when those in the U.S. need assistance as well?
Once you experience the living conditions that are present in Juarez, you realize that you are in a different time and place from conditions present in the U.S. There are likely places in the U.S. where similar living conditions are present, and there is much to be done in this nation as well, but good deeds should not know national boundaries. Many citizens of this country are blessed with a high standard of living.
We see photos of abject poverty in third world countries, read the stories of violence, and hear about the difficulties of education. While education is a key factor to raise a standard of living, the results are long term. In addition, history teaches us that education will often take a back seat to the basic elements of food and habitat.
Conditions in Juarez
While I expected to see poverty and poor living conditions, the pure mass of it in Juarez is difficult to describe and photographs cannot do justice to the simple experience of being present.
Square miles of housing lack essentials that we take for granted. Fences, barred windows and doors, and concertina wire are common. The area reminded one of a rundown prison, although the desire to keep trouble out of one’s home is understandable. Streets are patrolled by military units due to the high level of violence.
Municipal water may be present, but the source for many homes is an outdoor hose. Being a desert climate, with an average nine inches of rain per year, the ground is hard and dry. It does get cold, however, and homes are either unheated or heated by propane space heaters or small wood stoves. The few trees present have been oddly trimmed to provide sticks for wood stoves.
The living conditions appeared to me to be similar to camping in the late fall or early spring in Wisconsin. However, while there may have been some apprehension, at no time did I feel uncomfortable or in danger. Into these conditions we came to work.
As difficult as the living conditions are, the residents are clean and their clothing is in good shape. Winter sports team coats abound, donated from the U.S.
The people are hardy and, regardless of their trials, they still manage smiles. During a few afternoons a group of us threw a Nerf football around at a corner street. The children watched with a curious eye, but soon became engaged and many would join in.
Building the house
On Sunday we went to the building site, moved block onto the foundation, and sifted sand for the next day’s mortar mix. Sunday afternoon we visited a home that had been constructed two years earlier by one member of our group who made this trip before.
Monday and Tuesday were spent laying the concrete block. Not being expert masons, it took effort to become comfortable with laying block. The first course was the most difficult as the floor was not always level.
On Wednesday we placed forms to pour a cap of concrete around the top of the concrete block to assist in holding the walls together. Doors were also set in place.
Wednesday afternoon and Thursday were off days. The Wednesday morning pour needed time to set. Wednesday afternoon we visited an orphanage, a home for street boys from broken homes. The social care network appears to be associated with the good works of what we would term faith-based organizations. Sr. Frances Alonzo ran the orphanage with assistance from some handy volunteers. She was an inspiration to us all.
Thursday we visited the middle school and high school that Fr. Stan Martinka started. Wealthy children do not attend these schools, but poor children whose parents take on a great deal to provide their children with a good education hopefully leading to a better way of life. We also visited the downtown market and Cathedral square.
Friday brought the last day of our work, when we removed the forms, filled in the gable ends, set rafters, put on roof boards, and put in the windows.
The highlight was seeing the gratitude of a lady and her children as they viewed their seven-meter square concrete block home which will replace their plywood piece shack. The boy is 15 and is fortunate to attend school, receiving a scholarship from the organization Father Martinka started. Most children end schooling at sixth grade.
I will not forget the look of the boy being presented with a backpack and school supplies. What is often taken for granted in our country is a luxury in Mexico. His mother was appreciative of the bedding, towels, and cooking supplies given for their new home.
Benefits of volunteer work
While it took one week out of our busy lives, each of us came away with a sense of accomplishment. It was not simply to see a structure that we built, but to see that our actions represented an act of kindness in assisting our fellow man.
Volunteer work is what helps define our humanity. Such work need not be in Juarez. It could be volunteering for St. Vincent de Paul or at your local church. What is important is that you give back to your community. The volunteer work may do wonders for others, but it will likely do more for you.