Volunteers From The US Visit Tijuana OrphanageThe Fronteras Desk went along with a group of Americans who spent a day volunteering at an orphanage in Tijuana. See what compels them to travel to another country to help children.
Flor Jacqueline was born in the U.S., but was blocked from returning. Now 18, she has reclaimed her citizenship.
TIJUANA, Mexico -- Orphanages in the United States were phased out in the 1960s. But just south of San Diego in Baja California, many children without parents are still cared for at group homes.
Unlike our government supported foster care system, they depend heavily on charity to survive.
Once a month, a group of volunteers visits an orphanage in the Mexican state of Baja California to lend a hand. The bus starts before dawn in Los Angeles, stops in Orange County and finally arrives at Mission Bay Park in San Diego. There it picks up more supplies and people.
The final destination will not be one of the region’s popular tourist spots. Instead, the group of 50 or so volunteers will spend the day at an orphanage; one that is within driving distance of Southern California.
Bill Phelps, from Encinitas, is preparing to go on his 26th trip in a row. He enjoys reading to the kids and helping them paint.
“Last time, when I went there, I went into the toddler’s room and they hadn’t seen me for four or five months," Phelps said. "Before I could even sit down, they were already digging into my bag, getting out the coloring pencils and coloring books.”
Volunteers donate a variety of items, from toys, to clothing to household cleaners. Once loaded up, the bus makes the quick trip south on the freeway to Mexico and winds its way out to Tijuana’s eastern neighborhoods.
There is a palpable excitement in the air as the bus arrives at the Casa Hogar Sion orphanage. The orphans congregate near the entrance, anxious to meet the visitors.
At any given time, there are about 100 orphans at this group home. They range in age from infants to university students. Most have been brought here by the government because of circumstances in their homes, like severe child abuse. Some of them have just been brought here by their parents because they couldn’t care for them anymore.
The kids quickly go through and start playing with the items the volunteers bring. But some people do more than donate items. Some try to equip the children with tools to become successful adults.
Ric Levis-Fitzgerald invited people to help put an orphan through college. The group now raises $500-a-month, enough to cover the teenager’s education.
This was the first time the two have met in person. That really wasn’t important to Levis. What mattered was being able to help an orphan become independent and set an example to others in the home.
“Because coming here for the day doesn’t matter much," Levis said. "It’s whether you come back and what you do after that.”
Without the financial help, Lorenzo Virelas-Catalan would not have been able to attend college. He is the oldest of five siblings. His mother died when he was very young and his father decided he could not care for the children. He took all of the kids to the Casa Hogar Sion orphanage when Lorenzo was 8. Twelve years later, they all still live at the home.
"To tell the truth, there is no way for me to pay them back for all of their help," Lorenzo said in Spanish. "If they would not have helped me economically, I would not have been able to go to the university.”
Her mother, a tortilla maker, could not make enough money to support them. And when one of her younger brothers almost drowned while under Pacheco's care, the mother put the kids in an orphanage near Ensenada.
“She had known about the orphanages, she had known about that system. But, obviously, she didn’t want to give her kids up," Pacheco said. "So she did end up taking us to an orphanage. And it was probably the best thing she could have done for us. It was a huge sacrifice, but it really helped us.”
Pacheco eventually immigrated to the U.S. and reunited with her mother.
Years later, she visited the orphanage and was surprised at the sorry state. In 1994, she started the foundation, which now helps support 15 orphanages throughout Baja California. The non-profit has been bringing U.S. residents to visit group homes in Mexico for 18 years.
The director of Casa Hogar Sion appreciates the charity.
“I was privileged to have started the orphanage and to be a founder," Carmen Gonzalez said in Spanish. "But, this is possible because many people help us, help these children succeed.”
After some last minute playtime, the volunteers board the bus and head back to the United States. Can spending several hours with an unknown orphan make a difference?
One volunteer from San Diego says yes. And not only to the child.
“It brings me a lot of satisfaction. It fills you up with warmth," Simona Deaciuc said. "I know I can make a difference.”
Video by Jesus Vasquez & Jose Luis Jiménez; video editing by Nicholas McVicker.