Students lend helping hand in Tijuana

More than 100 members of UCSD’s Greek organizations traveled Oct. 13 to Lomas del Valle, one of Tijuana’s most decrepit shantytowns, to help finish 26 homes started two weeks ago by other San Diego volunteers. They worked with Project Mercy, a nonprofit humanitarian organization.

Rebecca Drexler

“”This is for a good reason,”” said Kate Mossbarger of Kappa Alpha Theta. “”It’s not for me; it’s for other people. I’ve never been to Mexico to paint houses before.””

In Lomas del Valle, the meal and the house mean a lot to the 500 families who live on this dirty hillside. Though the town is located only miles from UCSD, it may as well be light years away.

“”They are humans, they deserve respect and a better quality of life,”” said Panhellenic Director of Philanthropy Annie Abbott. “”That is why we are here.””

Rebecca Drexler

The students’ goals were to help the impoverished residents of Lomas del Valle and to bring UCSD’s fraternities and sororities closer together.

“”The real reason [of the trip] is to help out the families in Mexico,”” said Randy Takaki of Sigma Alpha Mu. “”A better reason would be to strengthen the Greek system as a whole.””

After traveling southeast in Mexico for nearly 40 minutes, the buses pulled up to the base of the hill on which the shantytown sits. The students became more somber as they realized that Greek needs would take a back seat to those of the residents of Lomas del Valle.

It took just one step off the bus to realize the conditions these people live in. Students saw the squalor on the ground, smelled the stench of muck, heard the squealing barks of rotten dogs, tasted the muggy air, and felt the experience of poverty. That was all before catching a glimpse of residents’ faces.

“”It’s easy to become cynical and give up on humanity. But we can’t give up — other people still need our help,”” said Abbott, who is also a member of Kappa Alpha Theta.

For the next five hours, the students painted homes, laid roofing, moved furniture and did other odd jobs intended to turn the simple shelters into homes.

A coat of paint seemed futile to many when they considered the surroundings.

“”I wish we could have done more,”” said Anu Shome, vice president of UCSD’s InterFraternity Council. “”I wish we could build stuff, but today we just did what we are asked to do and to help out where we can.””

According to Shome, the residents feel that a coat of paint adds style and pride to their houses.

At 15 feet by 15 feet, the homes are only slightly larger than an American bedroom. Each has one electrical outlet inside, but no running water or plumbing. The structures also have lofts to add sleeping space and outdoor faucets to provide water. Communal outhouses are scattered throughout the neighborhood.

The homes finished Saturday will allow for “”the possibility of a sanitary lifestyle and hope for the future, so parents don’t have to worry about their kids in the winter,”” said Paula Claussen, who is the director of Project Mercy.

Donations to the Poway branch of Project Mercy fund the building project. According to Project Mercy worker Peter Almlie, each house costs about $2,650 to build.

The homes are built on lots that will be purchased from the Mexican government by the families that will live in them, Claussen said.

Project Mercy, which replaces existing shelters with new homes, selects families based on need, but need is a common characteristic found in Lomas del Valle, according to Claussen. Other factors, such as available help from within the community and number of children, are considered as well, Claussen said.

Some homes contain children from two families because orphans are common. On Saturday, volunteers installed carpeting in a home to a family of three, plus the mother’s nieces and nephews, whose parents died of cancer.

Many of the residents migrate from economically stagnant central Mexico to Tijuana hoping to work in the nearby maquiladoras. For some, it is a stop-over before making the dangerous trek into the United States, Claussen said.

“”The scene is something like you see on TV or read about,”” said Lance Miller, a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi.

“”It makes you appreciate what you have,”” said Caitlin Nimmo, a member of Alpha Chi Omega. “”Some people have so little — just a few clothes and their name, that’s all.””

When the job was done, most of the volunteers said they felt a sense of accomplishment knowing their work was appreciated and needed.

“”We made some people happy; I definitely think we did a good job,”” said Chris Peuvrelle, a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. “”A lady I talked to was stoked that we were here to help.””

For others, getting out of La Jolla and going to an area in need of help made it even more rewarding.

“”It’s nice to do hands-on work. It is a whole lot better than just raising money,”” Mossbarger said.

Miller shared similar feelings.

“”It’s always different when you are doing philanthropy in a place like La Jolla because you aren’t really sure what your money is doing,”” Miller said. “”So this gave myself and my fraternity brothers a better perspective of what needs to and can be done.””

Many talked of returning soon with more people to help.

“”You can’t just come here once and not want to come back and help again,””

said David Cohen, a member of Pi Kappa Alpha. “”We are dedicated to doing more than painting houses. This is just the beginning.””

Cohen said that he plans to return with medicine and other supplies.

“”I think the biggest thing was not necessarily the painting of the houses, which was a nice thing to do,”” said Sam Shah, a member of Pi Kappa Alpha. “”The main thing is that everyone who has gone on this trip has come back with something that will inspire them to do bigger and better things for their community.””

Members of sororities Kappa Alpha Theta, Sigma Kappa, Alpha Chi Omega, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Delta Gamma and Pi Beta Phi volunteered to help out.

Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Mu, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Sigma Chi fraternities sent members on the trip as well.

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