I had been waiting so long to go back to the orphanage and we were so close. As we drove down the 5 in San Diego, the United States started to fade away. Buildings and stores became scarcer as we headed south. Eventually the sign "Last U.S. Exit" appeared and then one that read, “U-Turn to U.S.” We were about to enter Mexico for the next two weeks, and I couldn’t have been more excited.
This was my second mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico with Gordon's Mexico Outreach program. The first time I went was during last year's spring break this time I was co-leading the trip, bringing a group of 19 Americans to La Casa de la Esperanza, an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico. Many months of planning meetings, sending emails and organizing culminated when we crossed the border into Mexico. All my stress and anxieties faded as we drove through the dusty streets of Tijuana towards the orphanage. We turned onto the street and I felt all my muscles tense with excitement. When we pulled through the gate my stomach did a complete flip with excitement. As many people who have been to the orphanage will say, there is just something about this place that has a way of getting into you that can’t quite be explained.
La Casa de la Esperanza was established in 1956 when Señora Maria Bringas, a Tijuana matron and teacher, began feeding Tijuana street children. Today, the children at La Casa come from various backgrounds and few are true orphans. The Mexican government simply cannot provide for the children who find themselves cut adrift from functioning families. In Tijuana alone, there are 18 orphanages, and 30 in all of Baja California. La Casa has the reputation for being a safe haven for children who have fallen on hard times and need functioning parents. In recent years, leadership at the Casa has been headed by Antonio and Alejandra Lara, a dedicated husband and wife team from the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Guadalajara, Mexico. The number of children at La Casa varies anywhere from 50-75. While we were there 57 children were living at the orphanage.
La Casa is able to provide the children with shelter, food, love, clothing and education. Not only are the basic needs of the kids met, but the spiritual needs are as well. Profé and Maestra (which is what the children call Antonio and Alejandra) are a wonderful couple who love the Lord and share that love with the children. The kids hear a small Bible lesson each morning, memorize Scripture and pray together before each meal.
Our first morning at La Casa started off as a dreary drizzly day. After getting ready for the day, I headed up towards the cafeteria and saw this rainbow, a full arc right over the orphanage. Rainbows have always been very special to me, and I truly believe that this one was all mine. I love rainbows and run outside when it rains to see if there is one in the sky. God only gives them to me when I need to be reminded of His presence, and I really needed that reminder on Saturday morning.
I truly believe that La Casa is a place where God’s presence is especially tangible. I can feel Him everywhere from the warm gentle breeze to the hugs of the kids as they tell us “buenas noches” before heading off to bed. I hear His voice in the laughter and endless chatter of the children. I can see Him in the precious faces of children who have been through so much yet still find reasons to smile.
Last year, one of my leaders said something that struck me and I carry with me when I am not at La Casa--God was at La Casa before we got there; He was there with us during the trip; and He will remain there when we have returned to Gordon.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come,” 2 Corinthians 5:17.
One of the main things that we did during our time at La Casa was a Vacation Bible School (VBS) program for the kids each morning. Every day before breakfast we gathered in the cafeteria for our daily lesson, starting off with a few songs, and then the VBS team would take over and do a skit that portrayed the Bible story for the day. After the lesson we had a craft for the children to do. The theme of our lessons for the week was metamorphosis and the memory verse was 2 Corinthians 5:17. This is a picture of the verse written out in Spanish. Each day we had the kids recite the verse out loud, and by the end of the week they were able to recite it without any prompts. The lessons each day were about a person from the Bible who went through a transformation in their life including Esther, who went from orphaned girl to queen; Paul, first a persecutor of Christians who then transformed into a great missionary; Lazarus,who was dead and made alive; and finally, Jesus, Crucified Man to Risen King.
During our last day of VBS, we talked about Jesus and salvation and did an activity to go along with what we were teaching. During the lesson, we performed mini skits to demonstrate and represent each of the colors of the salvation bracelet, a bracelet containing five colored beads: black, representing sin; white, for purity; green, symbolizing new life and growth; and yellow, representing the promise of heaven. Normally, we would have made the kids make these salvation bracelets. Instead, we made a cross out of two sticks and each child came up and strung a black bead onto the cross representing their sin. After that we tied a bracelet on their wrist with a white bead to represent purity. This was a truly beautiful thing to watch.
This is one of my favorite pictures from the trip. This is my student co-leader Lauren tying a bracelet on Miguel. Throughout her years visiting the orphanage Lauren has been able to form a relationship with Miguel and his older brother Jesus. When we arrived at La Casa, Lauren was disappointed to find out that Jesus is no longer living at the orphanage because he had chosen to live at home with his drug-addicted mother. Lauren had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Miguel and to pray with him for his brother.
The timing of our trip happened to fall within the holiday season for Mexico. Christmas had come and gone, but we were there to celebrate Three Kings Day on January 6. During this celebration, gifts are given and received just as the three wisemen brought gifts to baby Jesus. Our team was fortunate to witness and partake in this holiday by spending extra time with the kids because they were on vacation from school, participating in parties, and eating a lot of rosca de reyes--traditional sweet bread of Three Kings Day. We had rosca at least once a day and sometimes more.
On Sunday, nine of us were invited to join the children at a party after church. We ate rosca and had some form of hot chocolate to drink. After breakfast, each one of the kids was called up and given a present. As you can imagine it was a bit chaotic with 57 children hyped up on sugar with new presents and to top it all off--balloons! It was pretty crazy, but so much fun. This is a picture of Jason at the party eating a chocolate covered marshmallow pop. Luckily on the bus ride home most of the kids fell asleep.
This is Pablo. Two things can be said to describe Pablo: he is always dirty and he never has trouble finishing a meal. So this picture pretty much sums him up--it was taken after dinner on our last night with the kids. As a special treat, we had gone to the local supermarket to get icecream and various toppings for all of the kids to have for dessert.
Pablo can be a little troublemaker but he can also be very sweet and affectionate. He will take a shower in the morning and within five minutes be dirty again. One day Pablo walked past me and I noticed that he had a black eye. I asked him what had happened and he looked and me and told me in a mumbled voice, “I got into a fight with a bigger boy.”
Ángel is eight years old and a sweet little boy. On my first trip to the orphanage, he was the first child I met and played with, so I was excited to see that he was still at La Casa when I returned this year.
During my time at La Casa this year I enjoyed playing and talking with Ángel. We often went back and forth calling each other silly names like “nena” (baby girl) and “salchicha” (sausage). When we left La Casa I gave him a hug and said, “Adios, nena,” and he looked up at me and said, “Adios, salchicha.” He is such a fun kid, full of joy and laughter.
One night when he was supposed to be folding and putting away clean socks and underwear, he started throwing socks at another little boy as they put underwear on their heads. I sat on the steps watching them acting silly and thought back to a time last summer when I was babysitting my nephews who are 6 and 8 years old. I had sent them upstairs to get their pajamas on and when I went up to tuck them in I found them with underwear all over themselves. As I was thinking about my two little nephews in the U.S. and these two boys in Tijuana, I realized that there really wasn’t much of a difference at all between them. The kids at La Casa are kids too and it is unfair that some children have to go through what the kids at the orphanage go through.
Since our stay at La Casa coincided with the holiday gift-giving season, we witnessed the kids receiving many gifts throughout the week. Several outside groups would pull up to the orphanage to drop off presents for the children. The bell would ring, the kids would come running and line up to receive their gifts. After the cars and vans had left there was always a period of excitement and chaos with trash flying everywhere and the kids asking us to help open and set up their new toys and games. The kids would occupy themselves for the rest of the afternoon playing and running around. This is a picture of my teammate Dave with Felipe who is showing off his newest action figure.
One day after one of these groups left we noticed pieces of broken toys scattered throughout the orphanage. We looked around and saw boys literally smashing their new action figures against the pavement; once the toy broke they would run away and find something else to play with. My group and I thought this was funny and would joke when another group came with toys it was “smashing time!”
Then we began to wonder why the kids were doing this. It is not to say that they were ungrateful for the gifts, but they just didn’t seem to value the things that they were given. The people at La Casa value different things than we do here in the United States. Having very few material possessions makes space for other things to become more important, such as building relationships and simply enjoying life.
When we go to La Casa we ask the directors what we can do to help out around the orphanage grounds. Usually, we help clean, organize and work on small work projects. This year Antonio asked us to finish a brick patio that was started by another college group and to lay down another one.
Our first work day was spent organizing the Almacen 7, a small room overflowing with clothing for the children and for people in the local community. We tried our best to tackle the mountains of clothes, folding and hanging them on hangers.
On our second work day, we worked on the patio. Before we started, we needed to level out the area with sand. Instead of buying nice sand, Antonio told us that he had a pile of dirty sand behind his house that we could sift through and use to level the ground. We crated a system with two wheelbarrows going back and forth between Antonio's house and the patio, with one person stationed at the sand pile with a giant piece of screen to sift the sand. The only fun part about this job was the kids because they were eager to help, to encourage, and to get rides in the wheelbarrows. Whenever someone was pushing a load of sand the kids would start chanting, “Sí se puede!” (Yes, you can!). In this picture you can see some of the little boys helping Meg out with the heavy load of sand.
By the end of the week we were able to finish the first patio and nearly finish the one that we started.
The border city of Tijuana is a key player for drug trading that is trafficked to the United States--the world’s largest drug market. The region has been plagued by drug-related violence and kidnappings. La Casa de la Esperanza sits in a quiet valley right in the midst of all this tragedy, and it truly is, as its name describes, a house of hope. It almost seems like life at La Casa is separate from this reality, except when you look at the surrounding hills and see the absolute poverty that is all around the orphanage.
During one of our team debriefing meetings we discussed poverty and what our response as Christians should be. Poverty is overwhelmingly devastating and it is such a huge problem and it's easy to get discouraged. After our team discussion, I wrote my own thoughts in my journal. Here is an excerpt:
I've realized that with poverty, we are called to do whatever we can for as long as we can, and if we can’t do it anymore, we need to find someone else who can. Right now, at La Casa, I can make a difference by loving the kids. That’s what I like about coming here--love is something I can do.
Something from last night's reading really struck me. The author said that we are here longing for Jesus to come back and feed the multitudes. And I thought, "Why, God? Why don’t you come down and help them? I know you can do it, so why aren’t you?" I knew that I shouldn’t be upset but I didn’t really understand. Then last night God said, “How dare you sit around and wait for me to come back. There are plenty of capable people already. If only they would do something." I realized that once we’ve exhausted all our resources we can rest in knowing that Jesus will come back to feed the multitudes. But right now, it's our job to do whatever we can using all that we have and all that God's given us.
Typically, we bring gifts for the workers and directors, but this year we did something a little different. Mark Stowell, our trip advisor, wanted to surprise Profé and Maestra with a beautiful new tree for the newly constructed patio area. It took a bit for us to choose which type of tree, but we finally decided to buy an orange tree. On our last day Mark went out with one of the workers and picked up the tree, then came back and planted it. Profé and Maestra were happy to have the tree and we pray that it is able to survive and thrive among the children.
This was just a small gesture of thanks that we gave to a place that has given us so much more. La Casa de la Esperanza is an important part of my life and will always hold a very special place in my heart. I see their smiling faces everyday through photographs I've hung in my room and am reminded of their love and constant joy. I will never forget what I have learned about the children, myself and God at a tiny little orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico.