South of the Border
House of Love
Recalling life-changing experiences with Palomas' La Casa de Amor Para Niños, as the former orphanage embarks on a new mission.
by Morgan Smith
It was May 7, 2010, and I was crossing the border at Palomas, Mexico. My destination was an orphanage called La Casa de Amor Para Niños ("the house of love for children"). A woman we know in Santa Fe has a friend named Martina Ontiveros who worked there as a volunteer and suggested that I visit. Little did I know how much this visit would change my life.
Martina Ontiveros and her two daughters and two granddaughters at La Casa de Amor Para Niños in Palomas. (Photos by Morgan Smith)
I headed south on the main street, turned right by the Coca-Cola sign as directed and worked my way to the west along dusty, potholed dirt streets. Due to the violence, many residents had fled and it seemed like half the homes were in ruins or abandoned. Eventually I found the building and, sure enough, Martina was inside, working with the 30-plus children who were living there.
These were dangerous years in Palomas. Tanis Garcia, the popular mayor, was murdered in October 2009. So one of my first questions to Martina was, "Aren't you afraid?"
She replied saying that she is a "soldado de salvación." Working here was her mission, no matter what the danger might be.
With those words, she opened a window to a world that I didn't know existed — a world of persistent and courageous humanitarians, some affiliated with specific churches but all deeply religious. In short, people who have a mission and will not be deterred. I'm not a churchgoer so this is a completely new experience, one that has led to a continuing project of visiting, photographing and writing about these many individuals and organizations, mostly in Palomas and Juárez.
After interviewing Martina, I went outside and saw several Americans unloading supplies from a van with New Mexico plates. What a surprise it was to discover that they too were from Santa Fe. Part of a coalition of 12 Christian churches in New Mexico — six in Santa Fe, four in Silver City and two in Deming — they had been bringing supplies to Palomas the second weekend of every month for the preceding 11 years. That was a record of extraordinary persistence, especially since getting food across the border was always a struggle with the Mexican customs authorities. On that particular day, for example, 300 of the 1,000 pounds of beans they brought were confiscated, despite the enormous hunger in Palomas.
At the time, La Casa had 32 children, ranging in age from a newborn to 12 years. One child, Wendy, came when she was only three months old and addicted to crack via her mother. By the time of my arrival, she had recovered from early seizures and seemed like just a bright, cheery six year old. All of them were thrilled to see visitors, as I discovered on many subsequent trips.
La Casa was managed by a coalition that included the 12 New Mexico churches as well as a church in Palomas. The president was and still is Jim Noble, the pastor at the Light at Mission Viejo in Santa Fe as well as an immigration attorney. This was a huge team effort, however, including among many others his wife, Pat. Dale Giese, a member of the Good Shepard Episcopal Church in Silver City, had received a Rotary Club grant for $10,000 to build the wall around the building. Tom Bates, the deacon from the same church, would buy 1,000 pounds of beans every month. Tanis Garcia had been on their board until his murder. Maria Lopez, who took his place as mayor or presidenta, was active in helping get the food and supplies through customs and continues to run a program for "abuelitas." The Mondragons from Durango, Colo., were developing vocational programs.
The next day was a Mother's Day celebration. The whole town was invited for a meal, music provided by a rock band called Rocka Fuerte from Juárez and games organized by an Assembly of God Church in Juárez called Manantial de Vida. Much of this exciting day was organized by a young woman named Eunice Herrera, who grew up about an hour south of Palomas, then went to school in the United States and now works as a legal assistant in Jim Noble's law office. (I recently had the honor of writing a recommendation for law school for her and she has just been accepted at Southern Illinois University.) What these volunteers put together that day was an extraordinary display of support not only for these youngsters but for the approximately 400 residents of Palomas who attended.
That December, I attended their Christmas celebration and there must have been 600 attendees. In addition to music, food and games, each family received a "dispensa" with household goods. At the Mother's Day festival in 2012 there were over 800 attendees, gifts for more than 300 families and volunteers from Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.
After Maria Lopez left her position as mayor, relations with the government of Palomas took a turn for the worse and the DIF (Desarrollo Integral de la Familia) began referring fewer and fewer children. As a result, the orphanage had to close last year.
La Casa's supporters then shifted their focus and began sponsoring kids to go to school. This means providing a uniform, a pair of new shoes, a backpack and school supplies, some food and the instructional fees. The cost is about $150 per year for elementary children, $250 for junior high and $500 for high school.
Several of the kids in La Casa with the author’s dog, Bella, in 2010.
Why is it so important to keep these kids in school? A report from the Port of Entry in Palomas indicated, for example, that 40% of the marijuana seizures involved smugglers under the age of 17. This is understandable in a community where so many young people are totally unprepared for any kind of legitimate work and where dealing with drugs can seem like the only option.
In 2011, La Casa secured sponsorships for 80 children; now there are 165. I'm a sponsor, for example, of a 13-year-old boy named Miguel Ángel Paredes Chavira. I hope to have a chance to meet him and his family on an upcoming trip. A woman in Palomas named Betty Jurado is in charge of the program.
In February 2013, Noble received good news. The director of the DIF for the state of Chihuahua met with several of La Casa's board members and said that she needs a shelter for children who are 11 years old and up who either aren't adoptable because of their age or who are older and have been in state-run shelters and now have to fend on their own. This is not an easy challenge, since these children have no family support and little education or training and Palomas itself has almost nothing in terms of employment.
Noble and other board members believe that they can provide a "family atmosphere" for these children, help them in school, provide tutoring after school and, later on, prepare them for trade schools, technical schools or college.
A huge task lies ahead and involves:
- Modifying the interior of their building to provide bedrooms for girls.
- Finishing a security system for the gates as well as adding security cameras inside the building.
- Upgrading the kitchen and bathrooms.
- Pressurizing the water system.
- Upgrading the yard and the sports equipment.
- Setting up a "business office."
- Updating their computer training capacity and furnishing a study area.
- Finding a program director and the right house parents. (This is perhaps the biggest challenge because the pool of trained staff in Palomas is very small.)
The strategy for taming violence in Mexico has been a "top-down" one, especially as carried out by former President Felipe Calderón. By that, I mean going after the leaders of the cartels. An equally important issue is the "bottom-up" one. That is, finding opportunities for young people to develop careers and obtain jobs. If this doesn't happen, they will continue to be drawn into cartels or gangs where they can make quick money with carjackings, kidnappings, extortion and, eventually killings.
Therefore, what Noble and his team members are trying to do — give young people the guidance and the skills to function in a legal society — is critical. It's also encouraging that the DIF has recognized its commitment to Palomas and come to them for help.
The goal now is to re-open by August 1 and to focus on young women ages 11-13. These young women would be selected by the DIF director, given a "family" atmosphere within the facility, encouraged with their school work and provided tutoring in the afternoons. Once they completed high school, they would have the opportunity to go to a trade school, technical school or college. The challenge is enormous but the Casa de Amor "team" has been committed to Palomas for well over a decade and has a record of persistence that is truly inspiring. I'm betting that they will succeed.
To send donations or for more information, write: Casa de Amor Para Niños (House of Love for Children), The Light at Mission Viejo, c/o Jim Noble, 4601 Mission Bend, Santa Fe, NM 87507, or contact (505) 466-0237, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.casadeamorparaninos.org.
Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture. He now lives in Santa Fe and travels to the border at least once a month to visit, photograph and write about humanitarian projects there. He can be reached at Morganemail@example.com.