I knew early on in the planning of this trip that I would celebrate a pretty big birthday on the road. On October 24th I turned 30 and was not at all how I imagined I’d celebrate reaching a new decade of life.
If you had asked me a few weeks ago what I was going to do for my 30th birthday I would have said I would probably be in Mexico City, at a club with a world renowned DJ spinning good music and having a blast. Instead there was an opportunity that when I first heard about it I knew it was how I was supposed to spend it. Hundreds of miles away from the bright lights of Mexico City and outside a much smaller town with the funny name of Tlacolula lies a little piece of paradise in one of Mexico’s poorest states. A short drive down a dirt road and surround by mountains is the beautiful property of Hogar Para Niños, a children’s home.
Hogar Para Niños is a children’s home for 60 children from the ages of 2 to 22. I learned about the organization through a friend and originally it was just going to be a place where I would stop by for a night. But I asked if I could help out for a few days and they said there’s always work to be done and that I was welcome. I was mistaken when earlier I told some friends that I would be going to an orphanage, that’s not what this is, as almost of the kids there have families. They’re living at the home for many reasons but mainly it’s because their home-life isn’t a nurturing place to grow up. Whether it’s substance abuse or the family financially is not able to raise them and abandons them. The home gets requests from families to take their son or daughter all the time.
The kids live in homes according to their ages and each home has house parents to care for them. I’ve been to children’s homes in other parts of Mexico and in East Africa and this is by far the best run and maintained place I’ve seen. Not only is the landscape surrounding these kids a paradise, but the kids have a nice place to sleep, eat, do their homework, and most importantly they have a team of people that love and care for them.
Hogar Para Niños is in the beginning phase of construction of a new school building so I helped out with the mixing of concrete for the foundation. I was surprised to see teachers and other staff come out to help mix the sand, rock, and cement. I doubt that’s on their job description. Even if it was, it shows how dedicated these people are to helping give these kids every opportunity possible.
For a few hours in the hot sun, we managed to get about 30 feet of foundation poured. This isn’t like in the USA where a big cement truck shows up and pours it for you. Every part of the concrete is mixed together and poured by hand.
While the concrete was left to dry we moved to another project that needed to be done. A chain link fence needed to be installed around the perimeter. Cutting small strips of steel wire, we secured the fence but tying wire every 18 inches. I spent hours out there securing the fence and installing more sections of fence which allowed me to get to know Ian. He and his wife Elaine moved down to work at the home over 12 years ago. He works on the construction of all the buildings and Elaine teaches art, quilting, and sewing classes to the kids at the home as well as to women in nearby villages. She also quilts a blanket for each child when they come to the home.
Currently they are running the school out of a temporary building for some of the students and the others go to schools in town. One of the things that makes Hogar Para Ninos special is that when a child turns 18 they allow them to stay at the home and will support them through university. Knowing the likely outcomes of 18 year olds kicked out of foster care in the US (I don’t know but I’m assuming it’s similar in Mexico) it’s great to see the support and love doesn’t stop when they become legal adults.
While I was at the children’s home I got to meet all the staff who dedicate way more than your typical work week. All of them in different ways were inspiring. Jill, Aaron, Santiago, Abi, Pedro, Jeanette, Ian, Elaine, Alondra, Marcelino, and so many more. Mostly it was constantly seeing them go beyond what a job would be. It’s obviously way more than a job.
Saturday night after dinner, Aaron loaded up the mini school bus with any kid that wanted to go and we drove to the next town to play at the outdoor park. Under the spotlights we played soccer for hours. After weeks of riding and little exercise I’m in horrible shape and I had to go up against kids with endless energy and who are born knowing how to play soccer. Although with the current state of the Mexican national soccer team, maybe that inherent talent is slipping :-) My highlight from the night was when the kids from my team picked me to kick a penalty shot. With the ball set on the line and all the kids watching, I took a few steps back, looked at the goalie, ran up, and with my worn out Converse sneakers I kicked the ball. In my head it all happened in slow motion, the ball went higher and higher towards the top of the goal, the goalie reached their hands up to block but they couldn’t get to it fast enough and the ball sailed into the back of the net. Goooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaallllllllllllllllllllll! So yes, my highlight of the night was scoring a penalty kick on a 12 year old.
On the night of my birthday we were hanging out with a group of the teenagers and they bursted into the happy birthday song. I still don’t know what the Mexican Happy Birthday song translation is. But it seems a lot more festive than the standard one. The next night Marcelino, one of the newer staff members, whipped up the biggest birthday cake ever. He took a semester off from college in the US and decided to spend it helping out by teaching a few classes like cooking and english to the kids. These kids are so lucky. Just look at the pics below and you’ll know why. Marcelino and I were talking about desserts and he asked if I had tres leches cake yet. I hadn’t so off to the store we went.
When the cake was finished we went over to one of the staff homes and enjoyed Marcelino’s delicious tres leches pastel. While I would have loved to spend my birthday celebrating with my twin sister and family and friends. This was an unforgettable. Not the cake. Well, I won’t forget that. But the days spent here. I definitely hope to return in the future.
I wanted to help make a difference on this trip and so I’ve been raising funds for International Justice Mission, an organization who helps rescue men, women, and children from human trafficking, oppression, and other forms of injustice. One of the ways to end these types of tragedies is to break the cycle of poverty and to do that you need to provide people with education, hope, and opportunities. It takes organizations like Cristo Por Su Mundo who are giving these kids a home, eduction, and love which hopefully leads to opportunities for them to change their families lives and in turn their communities. There’s many organizations that are doing great things but please consider supporting either of these two. The 2013 tax year is coming to an end soon and if you haven’t made any charitable donations, both of these are tax deductible. To support International Justice Mission and help me reach the goal of $10,000, you can make your tax deductible donation here. To support the work of Cristo Por Su Mundo by sponsoring a child or through a one time donation click here.
rebecca pennypacker says
Dan, your mom has been sharing your trip with me and I think you are awesome for taking this ..trip to raise funds for your ministry God bless you and I will keep you in my prayers…..I will add you to my people to help starting in January…… <3
Jan Mills says
Our church sends a mission team to Oaxaca every year (some stay for three months). Your blog made me laugh aloud quite a few times. Enjoy your trip and making a difference in the world.
Doug Pettit says
THANKS FOR TAKING THE TIME TO WRITE THIS INSPIRING LETTER….WE GO TO THE BAJA MISSION REGULARLY…U SHOULD VISIT THERE ALSO !!!
Mary Ann Ashmead says
I enjoyed seeing your pictures and reading about your experience. I haven’t been there yet, so I learned more about it from you.
Good stuff man. It’s awesome you got to spend your bday this way!!