Maggie Shafer Writes

When Helping Helps

Maggie ShaferComment

How Homes of Hope Mazatlan is proving short-term projects can have long-term impact


Two young boys playfully ran toward our host, Alejandro Fernandez, interrupting our tour of the Loma Bonita colonia in Mazatlan, Mexico.

The younger of the two - still unstable on his feet and without yet the language to explain himself - was using a plastic bag like a leash, carrying around the body of a lifeless chihuahua by its neck, an afternoon discovery turned into a new toy.

If he felt disgust, Alejandro didn’t show it. He told the boys to put it down and they did, and ran off laughing.

“That could be my daughter,” Ale said, and then went on with the tour.

There are a thousand neighborhoods like this one in Mexico. Most of the homes are owner-built, one-room shacks, made out of found materials and sometimes trash, often housing three or more generations of a family.

During hot afternoons like this one, the neighborhood women sit outside, washing or cooking, while others sit in the windows of bodegas - tiny shops constructed the same way the homes are - selling cokes, single cigarettes, peanut candies and colorful, off-brand snacks. They first act shy towards us -  we’re on a “tour” of their poverty after all - but once you wave buenas tardes they smile and repeat the greeting. There are very few men around - most of them work 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the dump over the hill.

On this particular street, a Tang orange home jumps out, the reverse of an eyesore. Humble by American standards, the 350-square foot structure with a small sign by the front door that reads La Familia Ramirez in childish cursive is the only home on the block with a foundation, solid walls, a roof that looks permanent, patterned curtains showing through actual glass windows. It’s a palace.

The color was chosen by the home owners: a woman in her 30s and her two preteen daughters. She jumps at the chance to show it off, welcoming strangers inside having been given literally no notice and proudly giving the grand. The front room serves as a kitchen and a bodega, and right behind it is the bedroom with a dresser, bunk beds and a twin, all neatly made. When the house was being built, the girls were so excited to have a new bed they couldn’t sleep. When they entered the bedroom for the first time and realized they each had their own, they all but lost it.

“Please don’t look at this mess,” the woman says in Spanish, gesturing toward the spotless room.

La Casa De la Familia Ramirez, this family’s first home, was built in three days by a group of volunteers from Mexico and the son of a drug dealer named Miguel.

The real life prodigal

Miguel is from Nayarit Mexico, about 7 hours south of Mazatlan. His family relocated there from Michoacan after his uncles were killed in drug-related incidents, and it became clear to his father it was no longer safe for his family to stay. When Miguel found out his dad was what they call a narco, he was 13. Swallowing the fact that his father was part of the pervasive problem in his country was hard, but not nearly as hard as it was when his father tried to get out. The drug trade was all his father knew, and leaving it forced the family to leave the lifestyle it had provided. Miguel reacted by rebelling.

He dropped out of school, left home, started drinking, using, and even dabbled in the industry his father had worked so hard to keep him out of.

When his father was in the business, Miguel was largely sheltered from the endlessness of it - he saw what it brought in but didn’t understand what it took out of his father.  And after three years of living this way, Miguel was exhausted. He had a dream where he reconciled with his parents, and the encouragement of his girlfriend to make the dream a reality was all he needed to jump a train back home. He was greeted by his father.

“I’ve been waiting for this day, for you to come home,” he said.

 

Homes of Hope

Despite the joy of reunion with his family, the sheer pace of what had been his life for three years made the transition to the normalcy of homelife unbearable - so much so that he considered going back to the drug trade. Why he didn’t could be its own story, but suffice it for now to say that he eventually found himself at Youth With a Mission Mazatlan, a missionary training base right on the coast and home to the founders of the city’s branch of Homes of Hope.

Homes of Hope was started in Mazatlan by Edgar Morales in 2006. The structure of the organization is straightforward: They partner experienced local builders with teams of volunteers to build homes in Mexico’s poorest communities. The volunteers get what they want - an international experience, an opportunity to serve together and all the good feelings that go along with it - while the people get what they need - something permanent, something solid,  in an otherwise quite fragile existence.

We’ve all heard the horror stories about short term missions and voluntourism and the negative consequences they can have on the people and communities on the receiving end. If you haven’t, check out this or this or this. But this information hasn’t stopped thousands of people every year from signing up for trips like these, willing to raise and spend more money to travel for a week in a developing nation than any of its citizens will make in a year (and sometimes a lifetime). Rather than deny these individuals and teams the experience they desire, Homes of Hope has found a way to turn these good intentions into actual good.

The organization is staffed by volunteers, who have raised support to work with HoH full time. They are native Spanish-speakers, mostly from Mexico, who can fully invest in the projects and the people, who know how to build a house and can effectively lead a team of inexperienced Canadian teenagers through an intense three-day building process in the hot, humid sun. Miguel is all about it.

Miguel and the rest of the HoH team leave the base most mornings about half an hour late, right around 7:30, with a truckload of materials, tools and water. On day one with a new group of volunteers, they all meet at the build site where everyone is introduced to the family whose home they’re building, and Miguel and the others start doling out tasks. Then Spanish pop radio comes on, and the builders start to sing and fall into the rhythm of the work.

Miguel seems to know what he’s doing (he had experience in construction when he dropped out of high school), and thrives in the labor intensive, long hours. “I couldn’t stand working at a desk,” he told me on the drive home after another 9 hour day, in between huge swallows of Chips Ahoy cookies. “I need to be using my hands.”

Since joining in 2012, Miguel has helped build 75 homes, sometimes three in the same week. The organization as a whole has built 166 as of last April, with the audacious goal of building 30 more this year, despite the hot season being nearly unbearable. They hope to double that number next year.

“The long term goal is to see full communities transformed,” said Adriana Flores, the 25-year-old director of HoH.

HoH focuses on one community at a time, building homes for as many applicants that can meet its requirements. The family must own their land (this is to protect the homeowners from losing their home to the land owner). HoH prioritizes families based on their level of need - income, job opportunities, the number and ages of their children and conditions of where they are currently living are all taken into consideration in HoH’s socio-economic evaluation. Once a family has been approved, the actual build won’t start until they’ve taken what HoH calls a Family Values Course, an 8-class series designed to help the organization get to the know the family, and offer tools to help them thrive as homeowners and parents, including shifting out of a “poverty mentality.”

Adriana said, “To give them a house is not enough. When you talk about poverty, poverty is a bigger issue than just economic.”

She pointed to the lack of education, public policies that benefit minorities, job opportunities, familial structure, presence of the church, art and technology - even the resources to provide drinkable water - as contributors to poverty in her country and in the minds of the people.

“The lack of all this molds a poor mentality, and under that worldview, it is impossible to overcome poverty.”

This is why the classes, and the follow-ups in the months and years following a build, are just as important to HoH as building the homes themselves.

 

Alejandro, our tour guide and friend, volunteers with Homes of Hope as a host to teams, but his passion lies with the neighborhood. During the builds, he visits families who have received houses, checks in on neighbors, and meets with local pastors, hoping to establish a system of regular and local support for the community. He is the first to admit that it’s a work in progress.

“We are still organizing ourselves as a team, and we need a lot of cooperation with pastors and fellow workers,” he said. “It’s a bit more complex than I thought.”

Poverty always is.  While the leaders of Homes of Hope know that education is crucial to lifting people out of poverty, it’s hard for kids to focus on homework when they have no place to do it. According to endhomelessness.org, a child without a home is three times as likely not to attend school, and nearly twice as likely to suffer from asthma, ear infections, stomach and speech problems - all things that keep children out of the classroom.

“Family is the foundation of society, and private property is the space for it,” Ariana said.

HoH builds the material and equipment costs of the homes into the team’s fees, but its full-time volunteers must fundraise or find other ways to support themselves. Here in the states,  volunteer and nonprofit work is normal, and most people donate to support organizations or individuals tackling the issues they care about. That’s not such a common practice in Mexico.

“At the beginning it was hard for me to work and not get paid.  I had people saying ‘Are you stupid? Who works and instead of getting paid, pays!” Miguel said. “Sometimes I get embarrassed by asking people to give me money but I just do what I feel I should do.”

The people of this region are much more familiar with the drug trade. Everyone is connected to it in some way -  through cousins or uncles or friends, all money is drug money. For many, it’s easier to get involved than not to. Which is why what Miguel and the rest of the Homes of Hope team are doing is so countercultural. Working hard at a job for which they don’t get paid, to teach volunteers how to build and serve, and to transform slums one house at a time into neighborhoods where it’s normal to go to school and sleep in a bed and drink clean water. It all comes from hope. And when that hope is put into action, neighborhoods and lives are transformed.

You can find out more about Homes of Hope, donate or sign up for a build