By Shawn Lavoie
A group of 16 University of California, Davis Hillel students and Congregation Bet Haverim members traveled to Tijuana, Mexico recently to spend three days building houses for those in need. We worked with Esperanza International, a local non-profit organization that helps impoverished communities in Mexico become self-sustaining.
On the first day, we spent most of the day laying rebar and placing homemade bricks used for the building. Using a hammer, chisel and oftentimes brute force, we completed the upper half of the walls. After this long process, several participants were instructed, in Spanish, on how to mix concrete. By the end of the day, we were all sore and tired, but definitely ready to continue the next day's work. On the second and third days, we dug a ditch to hold the retaining wall of a community center and poured a concrete roof. It was really amazing to see how much work goes into creating one of these modest structures.
"I didn't mind feeling sore from a hard day's work because of the satisfaction I felt knowing I was helping others," said Zak Davis, the new Hillel at Davis and Sacramento program director and recent UC Davis graduate.
Esperanza staff work in partnership with members of the Tijuana community who seek to improve their living situations. All projects are based on self-help principles. Each family involved with Esperanza must not only save enough money to buy building supplies, but must also commit to helping build the houses of their community members. Instead of giving away free houses, Esperanza makes an effort to foster a strong sense of community between its participants. Working with these families, it was easy to see not only how much they appreciated our help, but how much they appreciated the help of their friends and neighbors.
"As Maimonides taught, the highest form of mitzvah is to help someone help themselves. I appreciate that Esperanza does this," said Sasha Kluger, a third-year student at UC Davis.
Each family with which the group worked provided a home-cooked Mexican lunch for the Esperanza volunteers. This gave the group a chance to interact with the local community and learn about their particular situations and circumstances.
"It was amazing to realize that many of those we worked with come to the United States to build our 2,500 square-foot houses so that they can afford their own 400 square-foot house," Davis said.
By the end of the day, each volunteer was dirty, tired and sore. Despite this, we found the time for some amusement. Friday night was spent celebrating Shabbat at the Posada Esperanza, the group's place of residence. On Saturday night, we traveled south to Puerto Nuevo, a coastal town known for its streetside vendors and delicious seafood. The group indulged in both luxuries.
Jacques Franco, a Hillel at Davis and Sacramento board member and past trip participant, said: "I grew up in Lima, Peru. As a child I tagged along with my mother and grandmother to poor neighborhoods every week where they taught practical skills to local residents. I want to help students experience and recognize the value of service to others. My hope is that participation in such an experience will make them better world citizens."
"I took away a much greater appreciation for both the conditions that I am used to at home and for the sacrifices that people make to build their communities," said fourth-year student Sarah Klinger. "It was inspiring to see how much time and effort people are willing to dedicate to helping each other and themselves. It has changed the way in which I see my living situation and that of the world, and the way that I see people's giving spirits."
Hillel of Davis is already planning the next service trip to Tijuana for Sept. 14-17, 2006. If you have any questions about the project, or are interested in participating in our next trip, please e-mail Zak Davis at Zak@HillelHouse.org.
Shawn Lavoie is a fourth-year student at the University of California, Davis.