Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 22, 2006
Snowbirds bring good news to the poor
St. Albert couple devotes part of their winter to relieving Mexican poverty
By RAMON GONZALEZ
The Mackenzies help in many projects in Juarez Mexico, including this sewing class in a shelter for girls and young women.
Near the end of each winter they travel 800 km in their 1992 Toyota Camry to Ciudad Juarez, a bustling border city of almost two million that mixes neon lights and one of Mexico's higher standards of living with large pockets of poverty and despair.
The couple's commitment to the Mexican poor began in 2002 when they travelled to the Mexican resort of Puerto Pe¤asco, a popular weekend playground for people from Arizona. Through the local newspaper they learned of a great need for blankets for the poor there.
Upon their return to St. Albert, Jeanne did a blanket drive and collected more than 150 blankets. Getting the blankets to those who needed them became a problem so the Mackenzies contacted Amigo Relief Missions, an evangelical non-profit organization based in Sherwood Park.
The organization's director, Dennis Scraba, helped them get the blankets across the border and invited the Mackenzies to join him on a trip to Juarez. The couple accepted and has been assisting Amigo Relief Missions with charity and development work ever since.
Scraba and his wife Maureen have been taking mission teams from different Christian churches to Juarez for several years. Team members, including the Mackenzies, stay on the grounds of the Arbol de Vida (The Tree of Life) Orphanage, a large complex with several buildings located on 25 acres of land just outside of Juarez.
Every year the Mackenzies meet the mission team in El Paso and then follow their bus to Juarez. Each mission team has a specific project, except for the Mackenzies who go there to help however they can.
"This has strengthened my faith."
- Jeanne Mackenzie
Over the past four decades, Juarez's population has quadrupled. The explosion began when Mexico allowed maquilas, huge plants that assemble everything from clothing to refrigerators, along the border.
The factories were a magnet and busloads of people left rural areas of southern Mexico for the border, explained Jeanne.
The migrants moved out into the desert and built shacks out of anything they could find, including wooden pallets.
For some, Ju rez was a stop on the journey to the U.S. For others, especially women, it was the final destination. However, the dream was far from reality. The shantytowns stretched out over the sand without running water, electricity or sewers.
The same hopelessness that drove poor Mexicans from rural areas to the border over the last few decades now traps their children. Ciudad Juarez has some 500 street gangs and a growing drug problem among children as young as 10.
Violence against women is endemic; in the past 12 years, more than 400 women have been killed in the city, according to Amnesty International.
Canadian volunteers build an extension to an orphanage in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
With the assembly plants closing and jobs becoming scarcer as manufacturers seek even cheaper labour in China, young people are easy prey for drug traffickers who recruit them to smuggle drugs across the border into the U.S., Jeanne noted.
Aware of the growing poverty, every year the Mackenzies take shoes and clothes and money for needy women and children in Juarez. Once Jeanne collected 700 pairs of shoes and distributed them from the back of a pickup truck.
She has also taken dozens of gift bags for the orphans in the Arbol de Vida Orphanage.
The couple has also helped renovate the orphanage, helped build a new evangelical church, assisted in a women's rehab centre and in a men's rehab centre, distributed food and water supplies to residents of a suburb of Juarez, and donated medical supplies to a local clinic.
Last April John helped build a workshop in the orphanage so the orphans can learn woodworking.
On one trip the Mackenzies befriended a poor family of six who needed help. They weighed their options and decided against giving money to them. Instead, they bought eight hens for the family so they could support themselves over the long-term.
The couple also paid for the medical care of Lili, a seven-year-old girl whose drug-addicted father tried to sell her for $20 to a medical clinic to feed his habit.
Recently the couple paid for music lessons for a 17-year-old girl who grew up in the orphanage and then ended up in the women's rehab centre, a Christian facility for girls aged 10 to 21 called Casa de Refugio.
Currently 28 girls live at the shelter, most of them former prostitutes and drug addicts who want to change their lives. They get treatment as well as life and occupational skills. Jeanne teaches English at the shelter because, as she put it, "they need English to get anywhere in life. It increases their employability."
Mexican dreams ended in poor shantytowns.
The Mexican poor have a lot to teach Western society, the Mackenzies say.
"Despite their poverty the Mexicans are very happy people," John said. "They are not materialistic like we are. They place much more value on family and faith than on material things. Extended family is very important to them."
Jeanne, a member of Holy Family Parish, retired in 1995 after 15 years working with pregnant teenagers in St. Albert. She was a junior high school teacher before that.
John, a retired elementary schoolteacher and vice-principal, doesn't subscribe to any faith.
However, he seems to enjoy the services he attends. Many of the people Amigo Relief Missions serves in Juarez are born-again Christians who invite the Mackenzies to their services.
"I present a real challenge to them because they have all tried to convert me (to no avail)."
Jeanne said the born-again Christians have taught her a love for the Bible. But she attends Mass regularly in both St. Albert and Juarez. At Holy Family Parish, she is a eucharistic minister.
Jeanne does her own fundraising for the Juarez mission, mostly by making toques and selling them. People also give her money for the mission.
Jeanne says her Catholic faith plays a big role in what she does. "I see everybody as a brother," she said. "A lot of what I do I do because I'm a Christian. In fact this has strengthened my faith."
John does it for humanitarian reasons. "I want to help people," he said. "I get a lot of satisfaction doing it."
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