Now that my two years of volunteer work with the Salesians to Tijuana are through and I sit comfortably in my family’s two story colonial home on a tree-lined drive in northern New Jersey, I can’t help but think almost constantly about that thrilling Project which I left behind only two weeks go. Somehow I don’t feel as though it is so far away or as if my experience there is completely over and done with; rather, I am convinced that my time in Tijuana will always remain with me in my heart, in my mind and in my aspirations. I also know that I have left a large piece of me In the Salesian Tijuana Protect and that while my name may be quickly forgotten, the small contributions which I was able to make to the advancement of the Protect will always be an important part of its process of growth and development.
Two years ago I arrived In Tijuana, a rather shy college graduate with a great desire to give two years of my life in service to Christ’s poor children. I had previously studied Spanish. So unlike some of my fellow American Salesian Volunteers, I had only a moderately difficult adjustment to the foreign culture and language. However, I do remember the headaches I earned after listening to chatty Senoras rattle off to me in Spanish for many hours on end.
Remembering those first days seems almost bizarre to me. What at first shocked and angered me as injustice and abject poverty later became something quite normal which I actually grew to love. I don’t quite know how to explain that, but somehow my eyes initially focused on the desperate reality of the situation of the people of Tijuana and later my vision could hardly see past the simple beauty of their smiles, their hospitality and their progress. I myself have grown in a thousand different ways during my time as a Salesian Volunteer. I discovered many new things about myself which I never knew before. I went to Tijuana with the plan of helping others to grow and to learn. I’m not sure who learned more, they or I. Obviously, I learned about the culture and the language, but I also learned much more. I gained confidence in my own abilities; I became less shy, mare outgoing; I deepened my faith by working to try to integrate it more fully into my life; I learned more about people and I learned about my vocation. Never before had I driven a truck, done accounting, directed a choir, taught classes, acted as principal of a summer school, known so much about office computers, helped write a very large formal grant proposal, or danced Mexican polkas! I always tell prospective volunteers that one of the key characteristics of a happy volunteer is flexibility. One arrives knowing how to do ten tasks and is asked to do one hundred. "You’ve never done it before? Weft good, give it a try and use your creativity!"
One of the most difficult tasks I took on was the role of "Asistente." After only four months in the Protect, I was voted into this difficult leadership position within the community. Being "Asistente" implies many things: the communication between the Salesian priests and the volunteers; the facilitation, animation, support, organization and supervision of volunteer work; and the integration of the community. It was all very overwhelming. Every day was a personal challenge for me. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy, guilt and frustration. Sometimes I took one look at the imperfections of the community and of myself and I wanted to give up, but I never did. Instead I always seemed to end up in our beautiful little chapel talking it over with Jesus and a few times crying on His shoulder. That’s how I learned a real lesson in surrender. When questioned if she ever gets frustrated with her work, Mother Theresa responds. "I am not called to be successful, I am called to be obedient." I learned over and over again that I just had to trust that God knew what He was doing. I had to surrender to His will. I didn’t know why, but for some crazy reason He had asked me to be "Asistente" and although it was at times painful. I had to say yes. I loved that community; and even more. I loved God.
Being "Asistente” was definitely a growing experience for me. But was it so good for the communlty? Well, I’d have to say that despite my many weaknesses and mistakes, in the long run it was also good for the community. Many of the volunteers called me "Mommy" because I was always concerned for their well-being and I tried to be helpful when I was needed. In lots of ways I felt like a big sister to the volunteers and my relationship to the Priests was also very special. I prayed for the community every day and I now give thanks to God for having blessed me so greatly with the family which I encountered In Tijuana.
My work with the youth in the colonia (neighborhood) to which I was assigned was probably the most rewarding experience I had In Tijuana. My companion, Steven, and I worked to coordinate and nourish a youth group called Grupo Don Bosco. I was privileged to watch and help these 35 high school aged youth grow in faith, self-confidence, determination, ability and understanding of relationships. I grew to care very deeply about each one of them and felt great concern for their difficult family situations and economic limitations.
Within that same colonia I met a group of guys who were involved in a gang. They were tough kids, many drug addicts and alcoholics. They carried knives and dressed mean. The truth is that many of them were from very poor homes with bad family situations. If present, their fathers were also addicts or alcoholics and were abusive. They were unloved and very insecure, which is why they formed gangs. I witnessed bloody fights, saw them get high sniffing paint thinner off old rags, and even was there when one heroin addict was shot in the leg. I’ll never forget that moment. Tonio had just finished telling us that he wanted to change when a neighbor pulled out a pistol and shot him. He looked so sad and pathetic. I still pray for him. Maybe someday he’ll change.
Working with youth implies a lot of ups-and-downs. Sometimes that gets frustrating. One week the guys are so friendly and helpful. They talk openly with you and seem to be making real progress. They come to the youth group meeting and participate, even say a prayer. The next week they get high and rob the radio out of a volunteer’s car. It’s enough to make you want to cry at times. Real change is never overnight. It is a process and often a slow one, but there are positive changes. At least three of the youth I worked with are now considering becoming volunteers. I am proud of them and know that they will be great.
The Salesian Tijuana Protect is a project for technical training and human development of poor youth. There are hundreds of thousands of teens in Tijuana who are limited to activities such as gang membership and dangerous illegal border crossings just to get by. They desperately need help. I am very thankful for having had the opportunity to assist them. But many more volunteers are needed. They need people trained in vocational trades (electronics. carpentry, mechanics, etc.), teachers, athletes, administrators and peer advisors. Not to mention some good, Christ-loving friends. The day before I left, Carlos (a gang member) was admiring the crucifix I was wearing. I decided to give it to him, but on one condition – that he wear it not as a memory of me, but to recall always that Jesus loves him and died to save him. Carlos agreed to remember. I pray that he will.
Earlier I mentioned that my experience has helped me to learn my vocation in life. It has reinforced very much my desire to one day have a family of my own and truly be a “Mommy." Father Francisco Zarate’s advice to me was not to let my experience be just a parenthesis in my life. No, Father, it certainly will not be that way. All that I learned in my two years in Tijuana will serve as tools for me for the rest of my life. I will always work for the betterment of others, especially youth, and perhaps one day I will become a Salesian Cooperator. The spirit of Don Bosco will always reside in my heart and I will greatly miss everyone in Tijuana.
"My greatest sacrifice is that I must leave you."
St. John Bosco. 1888
Special thanks to Padre Romo, Padre Zarate, Padre de la Garza, Fr. Sesto, Fr. Luna, John Cussen, Fr. Chiosso, the Salesians of the Province of Guadalajara, the present and past volunteers, the youth, collaborators and cooperators of Tijuana, the St. Thomas More Women’s Club, my dear friends and my very wonderful family. I love you all.