There is a certain event that occurs every year and has the effect of separating the "lucky ones" from the rest of us. The lucky ones are those who disappear -- at least for a week -- in hasty flight to points south, to places like Palm Springs or maybe even Hawaii. For these chosen few, spring break is an escape from the last dregs of Spokane's winter.
And so it was during this year's spring break week that a certain collection of Spokane high school kids spent their week of vacation some 1,500 miles south of here on a warm hillside overlooking the brilliant Pacific Ocean, turning to the sun and letting every one of the 80 very welcome degrees pour over them. From this view, they could gaze off to the panorama of waves washing up on southern California beaches.
They were a long, long way from home, in more ways than one.
It was quite a view for those youngsters, indeed. On one side, as far as the eye could see, the opulence and the splendor of San Diego's famed golden coastline. But under the same blue sky and bathed by the same sun, from this special vista just over the border in Tijuana, Mexico, was the other half of the picture that these Spokane students could literally smell as well as see. The rotting, burning, massive open pit of garbage where, each and every day, hundreds of men, women and children literally live among the trash, picking through others' waste in hopes of finding something to sell or, failing that, something to eat.
For each of the past 11 years, students sponsored by Spokane's First Presbyterian church have traveled to this special dividing line where extraordinary wealth seems no more than a five-iron away from true third-world poverty. These special kids forsake the beach balls and suntan lotion and instead pack tools, lumber and many, many bags of cement, all to build small homes for people who are living without them.
"My goal is always to create a project where kids can be shocked out of their comfortable way of understanding their lives and their faith here in Spokane, and grow much more deeply" says Randy Brothers, the church youth leader who's organized and supervised the work each year.
Last month, 72 young people made the trip. It was the culmination of months of hard work and fund raising for each of the students. They spent precious Saturdays in the church parking lot practicing the finer points of home construction, learning to nail boards on 16-inch centers, to make roof trusses and window frames and pour concrete foundations. They worked under the supervision of several adult advisors with extensive home construction experience.
Each of the eight homes they built in Tijuana might pass for an extra large tool shed in some Spokane backyards. They each measured about 12 feet by 24 feet, with three windows, a door, no indoor plumbing and very rudimentary electrical outlets and lights. But by the standards of those families getting the keys at the end of the busy week, these were mansions.
The program at First Presbyterian is linked to a small network of churches in Seattle and southern California. Over the years, Spokane students have built about 100 small but sturdy homes for needy Tijuana families. It's a true give-and-take program. The Spokane teens give shelter, and in return they take away an experience that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
"I've learned to appreciate what I have in a very different way," says Becky Verbel, a Lewis & amp; Clark student who this year made her fifth pilgrimage to Tijuana. "I don't take my house for granted, or that I have a car. I think a lot about the people I met down there who every day are living at the dump looking for something to scavenge."
Tijuana's municipal landfill doesn't seem like the kind of place where homes should ever be built. Brothers says the thin earth layer that covers garbage at the landfill isn't the best building platform, and there are obvious health issues for those who spend every day and night there. But Tijuana is no different from many other larger Mexican cities, including the capital, where people live at the municipal dumps because they can't afford to be anywhere else.
Many landfill families spend years getting by with shacks made of various scrap materials that may include cardboard, pallets, tires and tarps. The neighborhood power grid is a maze of extension cords running through windows, bringing hijacked electricity from some unknown original source. Every few weeks, the local officials come through and tear all the cords out, only to find much of the makeshift grid reconnected by sundown.
This year, the Spokane group arrived to learn that their plans for several more houses in the landfill had suddenly ground to a halt. Brothers says the Mexican government had decreed that no more homes could be built there. At first blush, that sounds like a prudent decision, given the public health issues. But as Brothers remarks, the abject poverty that puts people there in the first place means they won't be going away just because they can't live under a roof there. "Some of the families being relocated told us they're not happy about that, because it takes them farther away from the only place where they can try to earn some money."
News of the government's landfill shutdown meant a need for quick thinking and schedule-shuffling by the Spokane crews. It was decided that the groups would be dispersed to other building projects scheduled for that week in various neighborhoods.
Everything seemed to have been worked out when suddenly there came another unexpected roadblock. This time, a Tijuana building official had "red tagged" other volunteer building projects. "It apparently was a misunderstanding over permits," says Don Huddleston, one of the adult advisors.
Huddleston is a commercial realtor who knew that the only way to save the day -- and maybe the whole week -- was to head straight to city hall. But it was 4:45 on a Friday afternoon. Not the most promising of situations, to say the least.
As it happens, the Tijuana city council chooses to hold its meetings, of all times, on Friday nights. So there they were, a small but determined contingent from Spokane parked squarely in the city council audience on a Friday night. Huddleston says that after several hours of waiting, they finally got an audience with a man who is the equivalent of Tijuana's mayor, and by the time they left city hall, the "red tags" had been removed.
Huddleston is walking proof that this annual experience can have profound effects on the adults who travel there as well as the teenagers. At the age of 51, Huddleston suddenly is a Man on a Mission. He was born in the conservative agricultural town of Connell, midway between Ritzville and the Tri-Cities, just off Highway 395. He'd done a bit of traveling but would be the first to tell you that the plight of the poor in Mexican border towns was far down on the list of his thoughts a few years ago, when somebody asked him to come along and act as the official trip photographer.
Huddleston came home from that first trip a very different man. He has now traveled there multiple times with the student groups, and made additional trips on his own or with other church members. He has trucked in a brand new commercial stove for a Tijuana orphanage that's affiliated with the annual housing project. And he's established a very special connection with the children who live at that orphanage, called Hogar de los Ninos ("Home of the Children").
"One year, we went down there with enough money to get all of the children new shoes for school," Huddleston recalls. "Most of them had never been in a store like that, and had never been able to buy anything that was brand-new." The look on their faces, and the pride the children felt that day, he says, will stay with him forever. "If somebody had suggested that I, a single politically conservative guy from Spokane, would be devoting much of my thoughts and time in Tijuana for desperately poor, abused children, I would have thought they were crazy."
In addition to building homes, the group spends a great deal of their free time in and around the Tijuana orphanage. They play games and read with the children, both in Spanish and in English. "There's an amazing transformation that occurs when the kids from the orphanage get to teach our kids some Spanish," Huddleston says. "It's very empowering for them, and it teaches the immense value of communication. It's a wonderful lesson for the whole group."
There are many reasons in today's Mexico why young children suddenly find themselves orphaned or abandoned. The orphanage -- one of many in the greater Tijuana area -- is home to children whose smiling faces hide a very troubled past in a troubled country. "When the orphanage began, these were mostly children of prostitutes," says Brothers. Today, he says, they are children whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them. Some have parents with drug addictions or mental illness. Brothers says the orphanage is also one of the government's favored foster care solutions.
The week-long experience offered the Spokane students a stark, first-hand glimpse into a world very different from the one they'd return to when their work was done. But among all of the kids who went this year, it was Andrea Walker who may have had the most compelling perspective. Walker -- a member of the Lewis & amp; Clark golf team this spring -- was born in South Korea and abandoned by her parents as an infant. "I'm told I had nine sisters, and my parents apparently wanted a son," Walker says. She was adopted by American parents and raised here in Spokane. "I looked at these kids at the orphanage and wished they could find a family, too. I came home and asked my mom, 'Don't we have room for just one more?' "
The annual building project is paid for through several months of fund raising by each of the students. It costs about $750 per crew member. This year, the group raised about $65,000 to pay for transportation costs and building materials. Most of the materials are purchased in southern California and trucked across the border just as the kids were arriving.
The student construction crews slept on the floor of the orphanage for the entire week, each morning fanning out to various projects for a full day of lifting, hammering, sawing and sweating. "The worst of it was Cemento Day" says Walker.
Cemento Dia, or "Cement Day" in English, is the day when students lug 18 bags of powdered cement -- at 110 pounds each -- to each of the home sites for the eventual pouring of the foundations. "There were no cement mixers. We had to do it all by hand," Walker says. The students spent many hours of hard labor that day, mixing and pouring enough concrete to fill a 12-by-24 slab of foundation inside lumber forms they'd nailed together on the ground.
All of the Tijuana families who got homes this year have children, and one or both of the parents were usually gone for long hours of the day and night working at local factories while their new homes were being built. At the end of the week, the Spokane students had an extra surprise for the new homeowners. They'd bought a large collection of dishes, silverware, dish towels and many of the other small necessities of home ownership. There were lots of tears that day.
Among the lucky tanned faces dotting Spokane classrooms are a few who have come back from a very different kind of spring break. They don't look at Spokane's "bad roads" in quite the same way.
"It's opened my eyes to the world outside of high school and Spokane," says Stevie Weller, a senior who made his fourth trip this year. "It's changed what I want out of life. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I want to help people. I don't want to live my life just for myself."
John Allison is a former broadcast journalist who now practices law in Spokane.