Photography and Words by Scott Foran (Co-Founder, 505-Junk)
November 19, 2019: Last week I went to Baja California, Mexico with Breakthrough Academy and a group of like-minded entrepreneurs expecting to build homes for charity and a couple of families in need. What I actually got was a life-changing experience. The BTA team and their members pulled together to make a difference in the lives of two families, bring joy to orphan children (even if just for one day), and give back to people in dire need of essential food. The teamwork, organization and, most importantly, the heart that it took to pull all of this off was a testament to the quality of the people we surround ourselves with. Thank you to the BTA team, and to my fellow members for pushing to make this happen, while setting the bar for giving back even higher.
Last week I travelled to Baja California, Mexcico with Breakthrough Academy (BTA) to take part in their annual referral trip where we spent the week building two houses for two very special families: the Arenas Mendez Family and the Santiago Family.
Meet the Arenas Mendez Family
The Arenas Mendez family emigrated to Ensenada 3 years ago because it was impossible to find work at home. Gerarda, Jose and their 2 year old son Deibid live with Gerarda’s sister, Nicolasa, and brother-in-law, Ermenegildo. Both men are produce field workers who earn less than $17 Canadian per day. Their current house, built with plywood and dirt floors, was created with materials borrowed from Jose’s brother; he has asked that the borrowed materials be returned so that he can build his own house.
Meet the Santiago Family
The Santiago family moved from Oaxaca to Ensenada three years ago after their home was destroyed by a flood. Unfortunately, most of Jaquelina’s family has had to move back to the Oaxaca because it is easier for them to find food and water. Jaquelina has stayed in Ensenada because there is more work in the area. Jaquelina recently fell and injured her leg, making her unable to work.
Currently, Jaquelina’s son (Luis), his girlfriend (Rosalba), and their five-month old baby (Yarexi) live with her. Luis works at a chili packing plant. Jaquelina’s bother, Roberto, had to leave his village of origin due to a land dispute and moved in with Jaquelina. He has difficulty getting a permanent job because he does not have a Voter Credential Card which is the standard form of legal identification in Mexico, so he has to look for uncertain day labour each morning. The family lives in a home made from old wood, with dirt floors and tarps for a roof. When it rains, they cover themselves with plastic sheets so that the blankets don’t get wet as they sleep.
Day 1 – Full Day: Our teams arrived around 1pm to kick start the project. We quickly split off into two teams to start the build, which was a bit of a chaotic process as we sorted through the individual activities and tasks for each person. Each BTA member was trying to use their own trade skills to speed up the build. The Baja Bound team took charge of “House 2” and Brandon Smith took charge of “House 1”, with the guidance from the Baja Bound Team. I quickly assigned myself to transport the materials from the top of the hill down to the concrete slab, which was the base of the home. While I was transporting materials, the team at the slab was busy framing the walls and getting it ready to sheet. This was repeated until we were able to erect all four walls and install the interior walls and loft before finishing the first day. That night we were treated to tacos and authentic Mexican Coca-Cola.
Day 2 – Morning (Construction): I went back to the building site to continue working until noon. This time we had both Henri (TQ Construction) and Brandon Smith (New Vision Projects) on House 1. The Baja Bound team took on House 2. Kaite (BTA) and I started installing the insulation. We were able to get all of the insulation in while Cory (Vancity Electric) installed all of the electrical boxes and wiring for the house before us. Brandon and Henri installed the rafters while Graeme (Bow Group), Jacob (Everton Ridge Homes), Alex (Insight Service Solutions), and Brandon Comstock (Landscapers by Nature) installed the drywall behind us. We were able to get all the drywall completely installed, the roof sheeted, the flashing installed, and some of the shingles installed before the noon break.
Day 2 – Afternoon (Orphanage Trip): We swapped out with the crew that had gone to feed the refugee camps so that we were able to attend the orphanages. We were able to visit two orphanages. One had roughly 25 children and the second had 21 children with disabilities. At the first orphanage, I volunteered to help make the kids lunches. Once I finished I was able to sit down and play with a little girl. She was too shy to talk to me but I did manage to find out that she was four years old. Jacob and Sean had previously bought a bunch of toys for the children, one of which was a little toolkit. I was showing her how to put the plastic nuts and bolts together when we all got called to lunch. What blew me away was how happy the children were that we were there to play with them. Before we left, some of the BTA members bought the children a piñata, which they promptly hung up and destroyed. With some strategically placed hits, candy was flying everywhere. At the second orphanage, we were told that some of them would need to be picked up and carried around. I was fortunate enough to get a young boy that liked to be thrown in the air and spun around in circles. I carried him around for a solid 30 minutes before my arms started to give out and I had to pass him off. After a short break, he was back in my arms for the rest of the stay.
Day 3: We were back on site for 8:30am to ensure that we could complete the project by the 12:00pm deadline. This allowed enough time for the local pastor to bless the home for the two families. I was tasked with odd jobs to tie up loose ends, including caulking windows and cleaning up the job site. The entire team descended on the site to ensure we could finish it on time. With a group effort, we finished with minutes to spare. The pastor was able to come down and bless the homes, which you can see below in the photos.
What was your favourite part of the trip?
Handing the keys over to the families, especially the Arenas Mendez family as I mainly worked on that home and I had spent time playing with their little son David. When they broke down in tears explaining how much the home meant to them, it hit home that we had made a massive positive change in their life.
What was your favourite new experience?
When I was able to hold one of the orphan children and give him some connection that he wanted. I spent over an hour playing with this young boy who has a physical and mental disability. He had only joined the orphanage two weeks prior and he had barely started participating, but I was able to make him smile.
What surprised you the most on this trip?
I would say there were two big surprises for me. One was the living conditions of the families that they were both in before we arrived. This included old pallets, tarps with holes, and scrap plywood used to hold the homes together. The second surprise was how well a team of 40 people from all different backgrounds, skills, and experiences came together so quickly to efficiently build these two homes.
If you had an opportunity to do this trip again, what would you change?
Now that I have seen the difference it makes, I would love to share my experience with other people so that we can bring even more people down to build twice as many homes in the future.
We’d like to thank everyone that made this possible:
And, of course, all of the volunteers: