PUBLISHED: 5:42 PM on Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Juneau Rotarians aid villagers in Mexico
In a place where the weather is warm and flowers burst with color of unimaginable intensity, the scenery may be beautiful but the welfare of its people is not. In the city of Colima, Mexico, home to the Colima Volcano, lays a village of about 1,200 people called Confradia de Suchitlan, where local rotary members work to help the less fortunate.

Twenty-three people from Juneau's Rotary groups volunteered in Confradia from Jan. 26 to Feb. 3, working to distribute books, do construction and spend time with the local kids through Project Amigo, a seasonal non-profit corporation whose mission is to enable the poor children of Colima. They help the children to achieve their highest potential by providing educational opportunities, material support, enrichment activities, and medical and dental services not otherwise available to them.

"To give and help out the less fortunate is one of the biggest purposes of Rotary, especially internationally," said Max Mertz, who has also been to Confradia to volunteer with Project Amigo in Dec. 2006 with his daughter Haley.

Craig Dahl Photo
  Colleen Sullivan reads with two young girls during a Project Amigo reading session in Confradia, Mexico.
"Over the years several members of our club have been going," Mertz said. "My dad joined Rotary in the 50's and I went to meetings with him, and now I am taking my kids on these trips. It's a good learning experience for your children. It teaches them not all the world is like Juneau, and that every little bit of help someone contributes makes a difference, no matter how small."

His daughters, Haley Mertz, 12, and Sarah Mertz, 8, accompanied him on this trip and helped out immensely with the mini-libraries. Griffin Young, 11, grandson of Glacier Valley Rotarian Bud Jaeger, also was with them.

"Project Amigo has 100 youths in Jr., Sr. and University programs," said Founder and Director of Project Amigo Ted Rose. "These kids are all under full scholarships. Their scholarships pay their school fees, books, transportation to school, a hot meal and a weekly homework club and tutorial support. Nineteen of these kids are studying professional careers at the University of Colima. None of these kids parents ever went past the 4th grade."

There also are 200 kids in primary school programs. These programs provide enrichment, trips to cultural activities, and a yearly trip to the beach. These kids are given a full outfit of clothing each year and new shoes. They are observed carefully to see which will be eligible for the scholarship programs. Dental services are also provided to 3500 poor children, glasses to 1250, and hearing aids to 50, each year.

The Rotarians from Juneau served in two different projects. One group constructed roofs over laundry facilities, called Pilas, used by very poor indigenous women at the Queseria migrant labor camp. Their language group is called Nahuatl which is an Athabascan language similar to some of the Alaskan native tongues. The other group assembled the mini libraries of 200 children's books for poor, rural schools. "The Juneau volunteers took time to listen to the kids read and give them hugs and love," said Rose.

Max Mertz, the main instigator of the group, spent half his time during the week building shelter for the Pilas' with seven other people, all men except for Colleen Sullivan. At the migrant camps the men spend all day in the sun cutting sugar cane, and the women tend to the children.

Craig Dahl Photo
  Rotary members helped to construct roofs on the Pila structures in the Queseria migrant labor camp. From left: Chuck Kaltenbach, Bud Jaeger, Griffin Young (bud's grandson), Max Mertz, David Summers, Colleen Sullivan, Craig Dahl, George Elgee, Eric Forst (club's current president). All are from Juneau and are Glacier Valley Rotarians, except for Griffin.
"We were essentially providing cover for these structures. It's a substantial amount of heat down there in the sun compared to shade," Mertz said. "The hardest thing is seeing the utter poverty, especially in the rural migrant camps. It's a third-world kind of poverty and they are in the bleakest circumstances. So its hard to see all these young children playing in filth and boys as young as nine going out to work in the fields. We saw some of them come back from burning the sugar cane fields, just completely smudged in black. You realize this is their life. We worked pretty hard physically on the Pila's but the gratification we got from contributing was great."

The entire Project Amigo budget - which funds hundreds of kids in the program, the staff, food and support - costs $400,000 annually (in American money). It gets them a meal a day and education.

"That's only $95 a day per kid and you are literally saving their life. It's amazing to see that," Mertz said.

The contrast between their life and that of most Americans is stunning. The highest paid staff member, the director, is $20,000 USD per year. It costs about $35,000 for the 23 Rotary club members to participate in Project Amigo -and all of it was entirely gathered from personal contributions.

"By giving them the opportunity of education these kids have a chance to get out of what they're in," said Mertz, who speaks limited Spanish, but said the Project Amigo staff are extremely helpful being that they're multi-lingual. "Most of the people down there in that area are indigenous people, and Spanish is not their native language. If a small child can't speak Spanish, they can't get into school. This is one thing Project Amigo helps out with through their education program which aids students all the way up to the college level; their own government prevents them from getting an education."

Colleen Sullivan Photo
  A Confradia girl smiles for the camera of one of those who have helped contribute to her future.
The Queseria migrant labor camp is made up of families in the village making their living in the fields cutting sugar cane, picking coffee, planting and harvesting corn, or in minimum-wage construction or housekeeping jobs.

Most adults have completed less than a third-grade education and their children are the best hope for the future of their community. Most all of the children in the reading program were reading the books in Spanish, many in the migrant camps did not and "their parents certainly did not," Sullivan said.

"When your working with these little kids, they are just so cute, their little faces light up when you're reading to them," he said. "When I was working in the migrant camp there were a bunch of little guys running around there and they were helping us and they were pretty funny and having a good time with us, so it was fun to see everybody interact with these little kids," said Sullivan, who graduated from high school in Mexico City and speaks fluent Spanish. "What you'll find, because the kids are only required to go to school up to a certain grade, which I think is sixth, there are many young boys who quit school after that and go work in the fields along side their fathers. They burn the fields and the cane and then its easier to cut and they do this all by hand.

"They cut it down and drag it into these bundles, and are paid according to weight or size of the bundles and then they are all stacked up on these big trucks, that's how they make their living," said Sullivan, who said she would definitely do another trip like this one. "This was my first trip like this. The group has been going on these trips for a handful of years and it was really something I had been wanting to do because everyone that came back was so enthusiastic about it, and I thought, I really need to do that one of these days."

While in Mexico the rotary members had the chance to visit with local families, who took them to a museum and a banana plantation. They did not turn it into a sight seeing trip however, Mertz said.

"We saw a few museums but by choice we did less cultural stuff this time because the motive really was to get as much work done as we could while there," he said. "Culturally, though, the best thing to do, I think, is eat," he laughed. "The food down there is amazing. Every meal at the Hacienda is cooked by exceptionally gifted locals." The dinners, though, were usually cooked quite late compared to most places in the United States.

"The hardest part was getting used to the Mexican schedule," Sullivan said. "I mean, they don't eat dinner until around nine at night and we went to a Rotary meeting and I don't think it started until 10 p.m., that kind of thing. They just work on a completely different schedule than we do so you had to just get used to that."

To learn more about Project Amigo or if you are interested in participating in a future trip, visit