Community

Convoy of Compassion

Island Rotarians head south of the border to help the Mexican Schools Project

Helping hands:  Members of the local convoy before they headed out to help with the Mexican Schools Project.  From left (standing): Chip Ross, Bob Johnson, Charlie Sallis, Alan deJersey and Bayne Mann.  Seated (from left): Deb Nolan, Karen Ross, Penny Vroom, Paul Vroom and Robin Harrison.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Helping hands: Members of the local convoy before they headed out to help with the Mexican Schools Project. From left (standing): Chip Ross, Bob Johnson, Charlie Sallis, Alan deJersey and Bayne Mann. Seated (from left): Deb Nolan, Karen Ross, Penny Vroom, Paul Vroom and Robin Harrison. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Line up an ambulance, a Handi-dart bus, a 72-passenger school bus and a Chevy Tahoe SUV. Fill each of these donated vehicles with school and craft supplies, sewing machines, wheelchairs and sports equipment. Then, add 10 eager volunteers from three different Comox Valley Rotary clubs… and you’ve got yourself a convoy!

This convoy of compassion left the Comox Valley on October 28 to deliver these vehicles and items to the small and impoverished community of Cabo Corrientes, Mexico. The humanitarian effort is part of a charitable initiative called the Mexican Schools Project (MSP), which was co-founded by Comox Valley resident Bob Johnson.

Johnson is a humble and easy-going man who describes himself as “a house painter and outdoor education enthusiast… originally from Winnipeg… now based in the Comox Valley, but prone to going away for extended periods of travel and humanitarian work.”

It was on one of these trips, more than 10 years ago, that his compassionate heart would lead him to spearhead an initiative that would not only change the lives of many people in poor villages in Mexico, but also inspire members of several Rotary Clubs and thousands of Canadians to help.

“I travelled to Mexico in 2002 with my friend Selena Goldberg and we had brought about 175 pounds of donated school supplies with us from Canada,” explains Johnson. “When we arrived in Puerto Vallarta we volunteered at a community bazaar organized by local restaurant owners Margarito Larios and Eva Sanchez.  The event was to raise money for Family Services Mexico (DIF).  Afterwards, the four of us met to discuss where we could donate the school supplies. Margarito and Eva connected us to DIF, and this linked us to many special needs centres in the Puerto Vallarta area in which we still work.

“When we asked Margarito what we should do with the school supplies, he answered, ‘Forget Puerto Vallarta! I will take you where they are really needed!’ Hence, our introduction to Cabo Corrientes, Mexico,” adds Johnson. “This poor-aid area is just south of Puerto Vallarta and consists of approximately 40 small fishing and farming villages.”

Johnson soon discovered that the children of this area needed much more than pencils and crayons. They needed classrooms, bathrooms and proper housing for their teachers. The region, Johnson recalls, was as if it was in a time warp from 50 years ago. Very few people had electricity or running water. School toilet areas consisted of open pits screened off with plastic. Classrooms were beyond deplorable, with dirt floors and thatched roofs that leaked so badly that they had to close during the rainy season… never mind the scorpions and snakes that took up shelter there. Together, Margarito and Johnson decided they wanted to do something about the situation.

“From this experience, the idea for the Mexican Schools Project was conceived,” Johnson says. “With the help of Magarito and Eva back in Mexico, and working with my family and friends here in Canada, I began to raise money to purchase materials to build school facilities and buy much-needed school supplies.

“Every year since then, I have traveled to these rural communities. I work with the local municipios in Mexico to assess needs, and then buy the materials locally. People of all ages from these small communities, along with Canadian volunteers like myself, work together to remodel existing schoolhouses, build sanitary latrines with flushing toilets and sinks with clean water for hand washing, as well as construct housing for teachers. We also provide basic academic supplies and sports equipment. The people in these small communities are so very, very grateful to have these buildings and the supporting resources.

“While not a registered non-profit society, the Mexican Schools Project is about as ‘grass roots’ as you can get,” says Johnson. “Fully 100 per cent of everything donated to the program goes to assist rural Mexican communities in addressing their educational priorities.”

In August 2004, Johnson’s program and his Herculean efforts to help the Mexican people went national when Readers’ Digest Magazine featured a story on MPS in their ‘Everyday Heroes’ section. That helped him make his first connection to a Canadian Rotary Club.

The Medicine Hat (Alberta) Sunrise Rotary Club was the first to step forward with financial assistance. Over the years, they have donated thousands of dollars. A Mexican Fiesta Fundraiser there last July netted $10,000 for MSP. This money has been dedicated toward building a school in Rastrojos where the students are currently using an old woodworking shop with a very leaky roof.

Deb Nolan with a friend in Mexico.  Photo courtesy Mexican Schools Project

Deb Nolan with a friend in Mexico. Photo courtesy Mexican Schools Project

The Mexican Schools Project was brought to the attention of Vancouver Island Rotary Clubs when Johnson joined Strathcona Sunrise Rotary last year. Word of his efforts quickly spread amongst this tight-knit network of community do-gooders.

The convoy of vehicles and supplies that were delivered to Mexico in early November was a collective effort of the Strathcona Sunrise, Cumberland Centennial, Qualicum Beach Sunrise, Port Hardy, Lantzville and Nanaimo North Rotary Clubs. This mid-Island group of Rotary Clubs raised money for construction projects, secured donations of vehicles, paid for reconditioning and maintenance on the vehicles and for the gas to get them to Mexico, as well as filling them with much-needed supplies.

“But this project isn’t just about the generosity of Rotarians!” clarifies Strathcona Sunrise Rotary member Chip Ross. “As with all Rotary projects, we depend on community support. For example, the Snow to Surf event organizers, various sports teams and countless individuals from across the North Island all made valuable contributions.”

The 2013 Mexican School Project convoy team from the Comox Valley consisted of Bob Johnson, along with other Strathcona Sunrise Rotary Club members Chip and Karen Ross, Bayne Mann and Robin Harrison. Alan deJersey, Charlie Sallis, Deb Nolan and Paul and Penny Vroom from Cumberland Centennial Rotary joined them for the journey. They later flew home from Mexico at their own expense.

During the lengthy road trip they were fed and billeted at fellow Rotarians’ homes in BC, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, and in Mexico. A highlight of the entire trip was the celebration of the official ‘charter’ of a brand new Rotary Club based in El Tuito, Mexico. This Rotary Club exists directly as a result of Johnson’s efforts in building awareness of the Mexican Schools Project.

“The trip down was great and we were well received by the various Rotary clubs along the way,” says Ross, who has been a Rotarian since 1984. “Some of the clubs contributed financially to the project as well as hosting our delegation by providing food and lodging.

“It was not, however, without its challenges,” he adds. “The planned nine-day road trip turned into 12 days. Our schedule was off because of mechanical problems with one of the vehicles and we had a few other unforeseen delays—like a two day wait at the Mexican border—but it was still a great experience.”

On November 8, at the end of a long, long day, the convoy of compassion travelled the last—and by far the most challenging—50 kilometres of its journey. They motored along twisting and steep roads in the dark before entering the cobblestone streets of the small town of Cabo Corrientes.

“We were certainly happy to finally arrive at our destination and we were greeted with big smiles and a traditional Mexican feast,” recalls Ross. “It was great fun as some of the Rotarians practiced their Spanish and the Mexicans practiced their English… and we all had fun together sharing the universal language of laughter.”

The next day, the vehicles and supplies were officially delivered to a very appreciative community. The two buses will be used in the local schools and community health workers will use the SUV. The ambulance, of course, will be used for medical emergencies and patient transport. The presentation to hand over the keys and the paperwork was followed by a special community fiesta in the Zocalo (town square) that featured dancers, lively music, an abundance of Mexican food and, of course, more laughter.

“In the following days, our entourage had the opportunity to visit about a dozen schools in remote villages to deliver school and sports supplies and interact with teachers and students,” says Ross.

“Some of the members did crafts with the children, others joined in games of baseball and soccer… can you just picture a bunch of Rotarians running around a soccer field with the Mexican kids? One of the schools provided us lunch and the children performed traditional folk dances for us. It was so much fun.”

While some people might question why local Rotarians would invest so much time and effort in a humanitarian aid project so far from home, Ross is quick to point out that Rotary is a global organization believing that compassion should not have geographical boundaries. Rotary International’s motto is ‘Service above self’ and their website states: “We are 1.2 million neighbors, friends and community leaders, who come together to create positive, lasting change in our communities and around the world.”

“The basic premise of Rotary is to promote international peace, goodwill and understanding,” says Ross with heart-felt conviction. “When Rotarians see a need, they want to help. There are four Rotary clubs in the Comox Valley and together we do a great deal for this community. But the need in Mexico is greater than anyone here can ever imagine.”

This delegation to Mexico was Chip and Karen Ross’ third international mission and they both agree that words cannot describe the satisfaction one gets from giving selflessly in a truly impoverished country. When asked to recount one of their most gratifying moments in their humanitarian efforts, the Ross’ have a difficult time indentifying just one.

“The time we delivered 55 hand-powered wheelchairs to amputees in India really stands out for me,” says Karen Ross with a wave of heart-felt nostalgia evident in her eyes. “I will never forget the looks on the peoples’ faces as they were lifted into their new wheelchairs for the very first time, giving them the gift of mobility and some dignity.”

“This year’s trip was different than our previous two trips to India,” adds Chip Ross. “With those trips we knew—because of the distance—that we could not go back. With the Mexican Schools Project, however, Karen and I as individuals, and the various Rotary Clubs as organizations, recognize that there is an opportunity to build lasting relationships with the people in these villages in Mexico. We see this as something we can be involved with for many years to come. While it took some time to get over the physical exhaustion of this road trip, it was well worth it. We came home with plenty of ideas on how we can continue to provide aid to this region in Mexico and we will be sharing them with other Island Rotary Clubs in the coming months.”

To learn more visit www.mexicanschoolsproject.com or find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/mexico-convoy2013. To watch a video about the project and to make a donation go to http://igg.me/at/banos/x/4637895

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