Islanders build houses in Mexico: Presbyterian church program builds about 140 houses in 14 years

Now in its 14th year of sponsoring house-building trips in Mexico, Mercer Island Presbyterian Church has built approximately 140 houses for needy families in Tijuana. Ten of those houses were built from the ground up during spring break by a MIPC group of 95 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors, along with 39 college and adult volunteers.

The MIPC group, as well as volunteer groups from University Presbyterian Church in Seattle and two other Presbyterian churches from California, stayed the week at Casa Hogar de los Ninos, an orphanage near the city of Tijuana. Founded 25 years ago, the orphanage houses more than 75 children of all ages and has welcomed volunteer groups like MIPC’s for years.

In “the annex” — a section of the orphanage that MIPC purchased to ensure that groups could be hosted year-round with as little impact as possible on the orphanage — students and leaders ate, talked, sang and worshipped together every day before and after working at their respective building sites.

Each with matching colored bandanas and team names such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Flava’ Flav, the Black Banos, Hunka’ Burnin’ Love, and Teal-ijuana, the 10 MIPC work teams first arrived at their work sites, met the families the homes were for and began work on the morning of Easter Sunday.

Teams leveled each site, mixed the cement foundations, constructed every wall, set windows and doors and roofed the houses all by hand. Each group finished its 12-foot-by-24-foot house on the following Thursday or Friday with a coat or two of bright paint — brilliant blue, orange, yellow or green. The homes stood out so much among surrounding shelters and houses that, looking out at the hills from the orphanage, one can pick out dozens of MIPC-built houses simply by their vivid colors.

The families that received houses this year were selected by a small committee of people who work and/or reside at the orphanage year-round in communication with Homes Without Boundaries, a nonprofit organization co-founded by MIPC to oversee the over 35 ministry groups that do similar house-building projects. While no financial payment is expected from the recipients, each family is required to contribute an agreed-upon number of volunteer hours to the Casa Hogar de los Ninos Orphanage.

The language barrier mattered little as MIPC students and leaders formed bonds with the Mexican families and even worked side by side with them on the houses. The 10 families each had different — and devastating — stories. One team built for a family that had lost their hillside house is a fire that had damaged or destroyed many of the surrounding houses as well. Another house was built for a couple who have one child and are expecting another in June — their baby will be born in the house that MIPC built. Yet another team built a home for a grandmother caring for her three young grandsons, whose mother died from wounds suffered in a domestic dispute.

As students and leaders got to know their families better and better, they returned to the orphanage every day with new stories from their sites that went far beyond just the process of building the house. Teams spent their lunch and water breaks playing soccer, catch, tag or hide-and-seek with the children at their site, or having broken-Spanish conversations with their families about what life is like in Tijuana. One team even used scrap wood to make an impromptu house for their family’s dog.

Throughout the week, students were at once shocked by the poverty in Tijuana and touched by the kindness and gratitude of the families who live in it every day.

“They’re really friendly even though they have almost nothing, and so much more generous than people here [on Mercer Island],” remarked Mercer Island High School sophomore Colin Ramsay.

At the end of the week, after completing the houses and presenting the keys to their new owners, the teams said goodbye to their families and left Tijuana to go to La Jolla, Calif., for the night.

“After we crossed the border, I realized the differences between the poverty [in Tijuana] and immense wealth [in La Jolla] that were only 30 minutes apart. It was crazy,” said MIHS sophomore Kara Lungmus.

This point of poverty’s proximity to wealth is one that MIPC associate pastor to students and their families and the Mexico trip’s lead director, Paul Barrett hoped the students would understand throughout the course of the week.

“We experience a fullness and different pace of life and routines, individually and as a community, in the midst of glaring poverty. … My personal hope is that we would all experience something that shifts the lenses through which we view our everyday, ordinary lives right here on Mercer Island, and that [the students would understand that] the same type of service and extension of ourselves is needed the other 51 weeks of the year,” said Barrett.

The experience of seeing what life is like in Tijuana’s completely different environment as a community of 134 volunteers was a powerful one. When asked what makes him want to go back to Tijuana next year, MIHS junior Sam Shoenecker said, “It’s definitely the community — you’re surrounded by friends.” The trip’s theme, which was screened on the slate blue program t-shirts that every volunteer received and wore throughout the week, says it all — “(Be)loved.”

Overall, said Barrett, “It’s always significant to see different generations coming together in mission and service on behalf of others.”

Mikaila Gawryn, a student at Seattle University who participated in the trip during her high school years and returned this year as a leader, echoed Barrett’s sentiment: “Many of the leaders were previous students of the program at one time or another. I think that really proves how valuable the experience is, that people want to come back and give all over again.”

This act of coming back year after year and giving all over again has given hundreds of what Mother Teresa described as “the world’s most destitute” families shelter, safety, and homes. In fact, in 2006, Homes Without Boundaries completed its 1,000th house in Tijuana.

Here’s to the next 1,000.

For more pictures from this year’s trip, go to and click on the student ministries link.

More information on Homes Without Boundaries can be found at

To learn more about a documentary project on the families of the Tijuana dump neighborhoods that will likely include appearances from some of MIPC’s work teams, go to

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