Last month I picked up a group of Camden, New Jersey, high school and community college students at the Mexico City airport. They’d raised $10,000 dollars for a service-learning trip with Cuernavaca’s social services agency VAMOS! -- founded in 1986 to work with the “poorest of the poor”. Aboard the van, Djvonn Brown, one of two returning students, asked, "are you going to tell us about things as we drive?"
He had finagled a front seat, put away electronic devices and was asking to learn about this foreign country. I answered with a question addressed to the chaperones "Shall we take a slightly longer route and go through downtown Mexico City?" We approached downtown by way of La Merced Market, skirted what had been the south shore of the island of Tenochtitlan, passing Sor Juana’s Convent of San Jeronimo. We turned north in front of the ancient aqueduct terminal; it brought water to the old city from the springs at Chapultepec. I dropped the group in front of the bandstand Diego Rivera incorporated into his mural "A Dream of Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," promising to meet them at the Juarez monument on the other side of the park. I expected them to arrive before me. Wrong. I watched them cross the park while keeping an eye out for the pesky electric-powered police trucks, thereby avoiding a 'boot' on my tire. They unhurriedly danced with similar-aged kids at the bandstand, bought churros from a street vendor, had a group photo taken with President Juarez in the background while drinking in the pulsating city park.
We drove through the Centro Historico past sinking and tilting buildings. They heard about the Count of Orizaba and saw his family's talavera tile-covered palace. Progress was slow as we passed the National Palace, Zocalo, and Cathedral. Each site, and such a responsive group, invites stories of past and present Mexico. As we left the city, Father Jeff Puttoff, founder of Hopeworks ‘n Camden, guided the conversation with incisive questions of social content. Father Jeff apparently multi-tasked, sending photos and comments to the group blog. They were already posted when I checked that evening.
The following day another chaperone, Dr. Kathleen Duffy, recorded in her journal -- later included in an article about the trip: "As I stood in the brilliant Mexican sunshine on the afternoon of January 13, a wave of panic washed over me. "My trepidation was not the result of being one of the adults responsible for six youth from Hopeworks ‘n Camden nearly 3,000 miles from home, nor was it caused by warnings of cartel violence published on the U.S. State Department website. I was fearful that the one liter bottle of Jarritos soda my gracious hostess was pouring was not going to fill all the cups of her 12 guests. With each cup she poured, I analyzed how much was left, and how this simple expression of generosity might cause her family not to have enough money to eat that night. All the members of my group reflected on these events that evening. We were saddened that only one of the five children in the family was able to attend school, as well as the fact that there was no running water or cooking facilities in the house, save for a hot plate in the bedroom."
"This was not the only expression of kindness from a stranger that left me speechless on my six-day journey to Cuernavaca. The next morning we visited a community center run by the agency VAMOS!, where I had the opportunity to read to children and give each of them a paperback book to take home. I admired a doll skirt that one of the moms was crocheting for her child. At the end of the session, tiny 3-year-old Monse tapped me and handed me the skirt. It was beautiful, and I felt blessed to be given something out of want, not excess."
The VAMOS! board holds its annual meeting this week. Board-members direct the organization and cover all fund-raising and administrative expenses. Donors are guaranteed every donated penny goes directly to projects for the poor. Not many organizations make that guarantee. VAMOS!'s 2011 annual report records ten community centers open for 2,170 service days. 170,000 three-course meals were served -- each included a vitamin. Mobile medical and dental services regularly visit each project site. After-school educational programs serve children, ages 3 to 15. Canadian Friends of Vamos' mobile computer lab provided 12,700 hours of computer training for girls (49%), boys (42%), and adults (9%, mostly women). Teens participating in the computer program report “better school performance as well as broadened expectations.”
VAMOS! was conceived after Vermonters Bill and Patty Coleman participated in a 1986 Cuernavaca retreat. Like many visitors, they enjoyed the artisan market but their attention was drawn under the sales tables. They saw babies sleeping, children playing. They also saw school-age children working with their parents selling on the streets. After returning home they resolved to do something. From this humble beginning grew VAMOS! -- translatable as "lets do this together."
Last Saturday’s memorial Mass for Bill Coleman was attended by widow Patty and more than a 150 people involved with VAMOS!. VAMOS! is now a charitable organization transforming lives of young people on both sides of the only border in the world shared by the first world and the third world. For not only does VAMOS! provide help to Mexicans in need but it gives the opportunity for dozens of young service-learning U.S. students to experience Mexico and learn that, like Bill and Patty Coleman, one person can make a difference. Enthusiastic, wide-eyed, generous-hearted young people like Djvonn can even transform a routine airport-run into a grand adventure.