Our Parish Youth at Project Mexico

By Larissa Hatch

The week of June 20, 2008 a group from Holy Trinity Eastern Orthodox Church, Stroudsburg, PA met up with other Orthodox parish groups from around the US in Tijuana, Mexico. We spent the week at St. Innocent Ranch, an orphanage for boys. It works in partnership with Project Mexico that builds houses for poor families in Mexico. We built a house (11x22) for the Vega family.

In presenting this outreach opportunity to our parish, our priest, Fr. Nicholas Solak, thought that it would be a fantastic experience for the youth of our church. It would be a great outlet from both the religious and community service perspectives. Six teens signed on to go, along with one college student, her father and Fr. Nicholas. We were joined by other groups from Baltimore, MD, Piscataway, NJ, and Boston MA. The age range was anywhere from 10 to 60!

The costs for each person for the week were $495 for room and meals and about $500 for airfare. We also needed to rent a van to travel from San Diego to Tijuana. The participants raised money for their room and board by appealing to family and friends to help them in this worthy cause, and the parish took up a special collection that covered the airfares and the rental of the van.

Arriving in San Diego

Our orientation in San Diego with two staff members from Project Mexico was very informal and full of valuable information. We discussed the basics about how to safely and quickly get over the border without conflict. Our leaders also went over several rules and guidelines for appropriate behavior in a foreign country as well as at the orphanage. It was very overwhelming at first with a lot of new information being thrown at us, but it was all necessary in order to have a fun and safe visit to Tijuana. After the orientation, we followed the staff in our rented vans through the border security and the adventure began.

In a matter of an hour we reached St. Innocent Orphanage. We were shown to our lodgings, two men’s and two women’s bunkhouses with separate washrooms, and we settled in.

The orphanage houses about twenty boy orphans (for the most part, but there have been cases where sisters of boys reside on the ranch) who have come from very difficult backgrounds. Some boys were in danger of losing their lives in their former situations. Our leaders told us horror stories of the boys’ past, some too gruesome to repeat. The goal of the ranch is to provide a home and an education both in religious and academic studies. The ranch even provides transitional housing for the young men after they graduate high school until they find their own jobs and housing.

We were able to interact with the boys whether we spoke Spanish or not. Fortunately, I had just returned from a study abroad trip in Orizaba, Mexico and my Spanish was fresh in my mind. A few others in our group could speak the language as well. However, there were other forms of communication. The boys knew all sorts of games that we played together and the younger ones shared their toys with us. We also ate our meals with them.

Building the Home

The home we built was modest; it took our crew four days. The first day was the most grueling. We leveled the building site and mixed many wheel barrows of concrete. By the end of the day the concrete slab that would be their floor was in place. The next day we framed the house and built the simple roof. The third day we shingled the roof and wrapped the house tightly in chcken wire. Stucco was then applied on the fourth and final day. At the end of the fourth day, we all crowded into the small house with the Vega family and Father Michael Nassar, the Project Mexico priest. We all prayed together and Fr. Michael blessed the house.

As we worked each day to build this simple house, we felt sheer joy for the Vega family. I believe that I can speak for all when I say that watching the family work side by side with the volunteers was amazing. They were very grateful for this home as a safe haven for their children to live in. They felt that this was such a blessing to them. Also, the experience of living in small quarters for merely a week while knowing that this is how many people live their entire lives, really put things in perspective for me.

On our return

When we returned to Holy Trinity, we were overwhelmed with parishioners anticipating an account of our trip. Everyone was very eager to listen to our stories and some showed interest in participating in upcoming years. After Divine Liturgy on Sunday, Father Nicholas spoke briefly about our journey out west. During coffee hour, I displayed photos on my laptop. A parish presentation was also planned.

There is so much interest for next summer. I would say it is a definite possibility that many of our church youth will participate next year. It is relatively simple to schedule a week trip with Project Mexico. Some of the older youth (including myself) are looking into spending the entire summer there as interns.

It is strange how one week in a foreign country, where they speak a different language and have a completely different culture, can change your whole life. Your return to your furnished home with electricity and running water, and think about the things you took for granted prior to being in another culture that lacks these basic essentials. It was a holistic experience from both a religious and philanthropic perspective.

One of the teen group participants said, “It is truly an experience like no other. You cannot understand it until you participate in it.” Another added, “We were all there by no one’s choice but God’s. We were on a mission trip because someone was praying and we fulfilled their prayers.”

Larissa Hatch is a sophomore at Juaniata College located in Central PA. At Juaniata she is the president of the college chapter of Habitat for Humanity. She is also an active member of Holy Trinity Church in Stroudsburg, PA.