Church members rise to challenge of building homes in Mexico
September 11, 2012
By Katie Larsen
Volunteers from Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, in Issaquah, staple tar paper and chicken wire to the exterior wall of a new home before applying stucco during their mission to Tecate, Mexico, in July. Contributed
Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church members recently returned from a weeklong mission in Tecate, Mexico, where 14 volunteers began building a house.
This is the 12th year of the mission and Karen Stillwell has been involved since the beginning. In those years, the Issaquah church has helped with more than 15 homes in the community. Stillwell said the town has gone from all-dirt roads to almost all of them being paved and has expanded tremendously.
“We detect a huge community spirit there now,” church member Jeff Matson said.
The mission started as a youth group opportunity for high school-aged students but this year only five young people participated.
“The adults get such a kick out of it. They really enjoy it,” Matson said.
For families to qualify for a house, they must be living in the community and wanting to stay there. One parent must have a job and the tenants must have bought the property. The family this year wasn’t sure who exactly would be moving into the new house.
Each family that receives a home must commit to providing labor for other houses in the future, as well as providing the volunteers with a bathroom and all meals. The food is bought by the volunteers but prepared by the family.
Each home has the same floor plan of 600 square feet and two to three bedrooms, depending on the needs of the family. All of the homes are painted salmon pink on the exterior, so it is easy to identify all the houses the church has helped build.
Often, a house remains unfinished, like this year. The group got the plumbing, outside plywood and roof finished, and began on the electrical, drywall and insulation. Another volunteer group will come and work to finish the house.
“The big challenge is it takes four or five churches in four to five weeks, but so many churches have pulled out,” church member Mike Nordal said.
Some years, concerns about violence have made volunteering scarce.
“I feel safer there than I do in Seattle,” said Mikenna Whatley, 17.
Those interested in helping the home-building efforts should call Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church at 391-8431. Planning for next year’s Mexico trip will begin in December; all community members are encouraged to join.
Stillwell said the real mission is to get families into sanitary living conditions to stay healthy, but the area is not the poorest part of Mexico.
“It’s nice to have this experience to know that Issaquah is not the world,” Whatley said. “I think coming from the community I live at, it’s really an eye-opener.”
Whatley said it is hard for her to come home and wonder why she was blessed with her living conditions as opposed to being born into a situation like people in Tecate. It is her third year traveling to volunteer.
“You think about why people want to come to the United States for opportunities, but hopefully we are giving people a reason to stay,” Nordal said.
He said that the week after returning is always a downer.
“For one week, you have a single purpose to help someone else,” he said.
Many of the volunteers said the most challenging part of the work was the heat, which reached 103 degrees in the middle of the day. Often, the group would get to the site before 8 a.m. and take a break for the hottest part of the day.
“I thought the best part was being around the Zamora boys,” James Radek, 14, the youngest member of the group, said about the homeowners from the previous year.
They played soccer together and he said it was a good way to get past the language barrier.
The church is also involved in local community service, including volunteering at the Issaquah Food & Clothing Bank, Meals on Wheels and Operation Nightwatch in Seattle.
“You don’t have to go to Mexico to make a difference,” Whatley said.