Visiting a Mexican Orphanage with LA Kids: Corazon de Vida's Family Trips
Back in the day, many of our parents used the image of orphans in other countries as a reason for us to eat what was on our plates. Where I grew up, the “starving children in Africa” were held up as the ones who would better appreciate my peas, while here in SoCal many kids heard about the orphans in Mexico. The big difference is that I lived pretty far away from Africa; Los Angeles kids can actually meet the less fortunate kids in Mexico, sometimes via charitable trips across the border to bring supplies, donations, and general good will.
Like anything well intentioned, this charitable family activity sometimes draws mixed reactions in the community; I've spoken to parents who are skeptical of how much good these trips actually do. I recently took my son on a day trip with the organization Corazon de Vida, and I found it to be a remarkable opportunity to introduce kids to the concept of helping others whose needs are greater than our own. My son saw boys his age leading a very different life from his, and by the time we left, some of the kids he'd been playing soccer with had the means to fulfill their dreams of joining a local soccer team.
Corazon de Vida is a charitable organization that helps to support 10 orphanages around the Baja and Tijuana area. The group was started by Hilda Pacheco Taylor, who is herself a success story from one of these homes. To understand what Pacheco Taylor and her staff do, it's first necessary to challenge one's perception of an orphanage, and discard any images from Charles Dickens stories. The homes supported by Corazon de Vida are more foster homes than orphanages, meaning that the majority of children living in them are not eligible for adoption. Some parents I've spoken to are distressed at the idea of children being housed in orphanages in Mexico when so many families in this country would love to adopt, but the reality is that many of these kids cannot be adopted, because their birth parents either cannot or will not relinquish their rights. Usually the children's parents are alive but not a safe option. The homes supported by Corazon de Vida provide a safe haven, regular meals, clothes, and a good (often private) education. What's more, kids are given big incentives to stay in school through university.
The biggest problem these homes face is that Mexico, unlike the US, has no social programming to support foster homes, which exist purely out of the goodness of people's hearts. Sometimes a kindly person in the neighborhood starts a group home; sometimes it's a church, but it's not the Mexican government. While the government may identify that a child is not safe in his or her home environment, where that child is supposed to go once the police remove him or her is uncertain. It's a system, in short, that depends upon the kindness of strangers.
Corazon de Vida makes that kindness sustainable. The organization has certain requirements of a home under its protection, and once it takes on a project, those kids can depend upon regular support. It's a major commitment. Naturally, that makes for a lot of fundraising demands; the group raises money and collects diapers, cleaning supplies, and other important housekeeping items - everything needed to keep the homes running (except clothing, since hand-me-down clothes evidently make their way to Mexico in abundance).
What makes this charity unusual from the donor's perspective is that donating can include an opportunity to travel along to the orphanage, bringing the supplies and meeting the kids. It is surprisingly difficult to find opportunities for our kids to participate in charitable activities; I was blown away this past Christmas by the long wait to participate in the kid-friendly evening of the One Voice holiday food drive, but it shows how eager local parents are to find hands-on ways for kids to give back.
Corazon de Vida organizes monthly trips to bring supplies and pay a caring visit to the orphanages; private trips for a specific group (like a scout troup or religious school) are also an option. Ours was a school trip, and we paid $50 per ticket. The trip includes transport on a charter bus (a DVD player is available to keep little ones entertained on the long drive) and a pizza lunch party with the kids at the orphanage. Everyone needs a passport, of course, and for many kids this is a first experience crossing a national border - an adventure in itself. The moment the bus crosses the border, the views outside the windows change, and as the bus heads up into one of the not-so-affluent neighborhoods where the children live, our kids get a reality check.
The orphanages themselves are very well maintained, and the people who work there clearly care deeply about their work. Our group split its time between doing arts and crafts with the younger kids (we brought supplies on the bus) and playing soccer with the older kids (which seemed to be what many of them were most eager to use a crowd of visiting kids for). We also got a tour of the facility, and I ripped my son away from the game to make sure he did this. As clean and well-run as the facility is, there's no getting away from the fact that the kids sleep a dozen or more to a room (and a bathroom) and share ALL of their clothes and toys. This last is probably what brought the point home to my son more than anything: no personal possessions.
There is a lot to show the visitors what a long way a little help can go. Some of the older kids at the home speak to visitors and share inspirational stories of their personal successes; my son's school also had a follow-up visit from a former resident who is now in medical school. Our kids were able to ask questions, too, that helped them (I hope) to appreciate how special some of the little things in their own lives are. Questions and answers brought to light that, although the kids go to school, group home residents can't go to outside parties or on play dates. They're clear, though, that having a safe place to sleep and three meals a day is so important that they would never risk losing their home by breaking the rules. I watched out of the corner of my eye as that information settled onto our comfortable kids' astonished faces.
By the time we were done with our afternoon, I was delighted that my son was asking to come back. He enjoyed feeling like he could make a difference, and our day of giving these kids a party clearly had made a difference in their week that he could fathom. Add that to the supplies we brought for the staff and the money we collected for the kids who were dreaming of joining a soccer team, and clearly our day south of the border made an impact all around. From a parenting perspective, I hope that our Mexican adventure helps my son to begin a lifelong commitment to helping others whenever and wherever he can.