by Greg Niemann
One long-time Baja visitor who has made numerous donations to the orphanages of Baja California and even adopted four Mexican children, commented, “It was something like going to the dog pound in the States. Have you ever gone to the dog pound and not wanted to take half of them home”?
Only a few people who devote their time, energy, money, goods, and dedication to the children housed in Baja orphanages actually go so far as to adopt some of the children. But caring individuals cross the border regularly in efforts to improve the lives of those homeless children, the children of the streets.
There are about 50 orphanages in Baja California and no two are alike. They range from housing a handful of children to approximately 120. Some are in rural ranchos, others in the cities, some are close to the border, others harder to reach; some are gender specific (only boys or only girls), and others provide care for children with special needs, or are specifically for toddlers and infants; some are alberque temporals (temporary shelters), and others are affiliated with schools or churches. Some are well-run and well-organized; others are so slip-shod and/or dreadful that they are ultimately shut down.
Regardless, they all must feed, clothe, shelter, and provide physical, emotional and other support for their charges. To meet all these needs, it takes about $2,000 per child per year. All of the orphanages (Casas-Hogar) are overseen by the Social and Family Services department of the Mexican Government. They help regulate the quality, and place children, but do not provide for them financially. That is up to each individual Casa Hogar. In essence, they are wholly dependent upon private individuals, organizations and churches.
The great influx of migrants from all over Mexico to the border area has abetted the problem. Children are left at orphanages by parents who simply cannot feed them, or they are taken from abusive situations, or they are abandoned. With little or no family support or influence, they are in most cases, not adoptable. They are, in short, children of the street.
Ideally, in orphanages these children will grow up in a stable environment that will allow them to complete some sort of schooling, either trade schools, technical institutions or high school and/or college that will allow them to enjoy as normal a life as possible.
There are numerous southern California church groups as well as non-religious, non-denominational organizations, such as Rotary Clubs, that provide support for one or more of these orphanages.
Genesis Expeditions of Mission Viejo is a non-denominational, non-profit group that encourages people to become involved with the Casa Hogar and help in any way they can. They can assist a private donor by helping them select a specific orphanage, and they also lead regular trips to the Baja Orphanages. (619) 275-7072, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or check their web site.
The Corazon de Vida (Heart of Life) Foundation helps raise contributions in the form of food, money, materials and volunteer work to benefit and empower the children of all the 50 Baja orphanages. Corazon de Vida (CDV) was founded in 1994 and is supported by Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. CDV currently makes regular monthly one-day visitation trips, which leave from Orange County and San Diego.
CDV also encourages corporate sponsors to lend support and encourages companies to enroll employees in matching donation programs, holiday drives and provide company trips to visit the sponsored orphanage. Individuals or groups can also “sponsor” a child through Corazon de Vida.
CDV currently feeds more than 350 children every day through these programs.
Anyone can go to a Baja orphanage with Corazon de Vida by either calling to reserve a space on the van or driving down on their own. A different orphanage is visited each month, all within a one-day round trip from Irvine. Volunteers might help with a building project, or bond with and support the emotional needs of the children. There is a $20 suggested donation for food, transportation, etc. Call Dawn Sonntag at (949) 476-1144, Ext. 311 or E-mail email@example.com. Visit website at www.corazondevida.org
The philanthropic International Community Foundation, founded in 1990, supports numerous charitable causes in Baja California, including the orphanages. www.icfdn.org
Baja Christian Ministries works specifically with one orphanage, City of Angels, in La Gloria, a southern suburb of Tijuana. It is currently home to 27 children, but is being expanded and hopefully will house 125 children. Building work is being done by Team Casa de Dios in association with the Baja Christian Ministries. www.teamcasa.org
. City of Angels can be reached as (619) 852-8141. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the largest Baja orphanages is the Door of Faith in La Mision (between Rosarito and Ensenada) which the founders, Curtis and Sylvia Freeze, started in 1959 with a vision and $35. It has been the model orphanage, and the “grads” have nothing but praise for the Freezes.
DJ and Lynette Schuetze who have been on site for 10 years now run door of Faith. They care for 117 children, including 30 in diapers, one of whom, just weeks old, arrived the night before my visit. They have a staff of seven Americans and about 25 Mexicans to care for their charges. The DOF stresses family, education and community service. All of the children go to public schools and there is a study hall on premises for homework and special education. They are all taught Spanish, English and computers and many graduate into careers once deemed unlikely for a Baja orphan.
The dorms, segregated by age and sex, are clean and spotless. Young children bustle about either doing assigned chores or playing on the colorful playground equipment. It appears to be a well organized and model orphanage. Door of Faith, P.O. Box 6434, Chula Vista, CA 91909. E-mail: email@example.com. Website: www.dofo.org
It is recommended that people wanting to help donate to an orphanage do some homework. Sometimes orphanages are poorly run, administrators have been known to pocket money, and counselors have been negligent or abusive. Not only that, but there are always supporting American organizations that get so mired in red tape and overhead that very little assistance actually trickles down to those who need it.
If possible, physically check things out, and follow up. I visited one orphanage high in the barren hills above Rosarito Beach that housed about 20 boys in less than ideal circumstances. The pastor in charge was not in attendance that day but a young toddler who kept clinging to my leg was. I was saddened that the child and his mates were in desperate need of affection. However, those in charge couldn’t even keep clean toilets for them.
Sometimes a well-run place can go downhill with a change in administration. This happens, and organizers of those who provide aid should stay on top of changes.
That Baja orphanage supporter who adopted four children has visited over 30 orphanages over the years. He says he can spot a bad one in about 10 seconds. Recognized as an expert, he has helped the Mexican government close two of them in the past, and has also encouraged people to discontinue supporting a couple of others. The L.A. Times has used him as a resource person. He advises, “When you walk into a place and it reeks of pee, and puke, and lice abound, then it is time to pull the plug, even if it means back to the streets. Sorry, tough talk, that is the reality. Otherwise, you condemn generations of kids to pee and puke, and that is just not where I want my support to go. It costs so little to be clean.”
Another caveat is that many people don’t know what to donate to the orphanages. About ninety percent of the clothing, for example, is for adults.
Administrator DJ Schuetze at the Door of Faith told me that most people donate the obvious clothing and toys, so their needs are beyond that. “We could use household goods, like pine cleaner, bleach, shampoo, toilet paper, brooms, mops, and always canned food and diapers. We do our major shopping at Costco, so a check or Costco gift card would be especially helpful,” he added.
One orphanage that is visited by Corazon de Vida, as well as other groups, is a current success story. El Faro (The Lighthouse) is in the Tijuana suburb of Villa Fontana near the Otay Mesa border crossing. Founded in 1998 by Pastor Jorge and his wife Carmen, it started as a beaten-down two bedroom house which served as church, living quarters for the pastor’s family, and dormitory for about 13 kids.
An early visitor said, “The children were all clean and happy.…I was impressed and burdened that the pastor’s wife would still cross the border three times a week to clean houses after working who knows how many hours feeding and cleaning all those kids.”
In a short time El Faro moved to newly purchased land in Villa Fontana with a single building on it and soon increased to over 90 children. They began a separate school and a church. There are now nine buildings housing 120 children at El Faro. The fruit of their success is that most of the staff of this growing orphanage are graduates who have been helped by the pastor and his wife. www.friendsofelfaro.com
A volunteer or donor need not be affiliated with a specific church, or a specific denomination, or any church at all. Even those without a religion conviction can recognize a need to help their fellow man, or in this case their fellow child.
By supporting the orphanages that deserve to be helped, the children are being fed and clothed. They are provided a bed and a pair of shoes. Most importantly, when they sleep they sleep safely. They are safe. They are no longer children of the streets.
Greg Niemann, long-time San Clemente Journal writer, is the author of Baja Fever and Baja Legends, both widely available books.