I spent the summer after my sophomore year at college in Brownsville, Texas, spending the summer working with World Servants. World Servants is a Christian organization that put together packaged service camps for American church youth groups. I was on the “Holy Sweat” team, having missed the cooler “SWAT” team appellation by a year. World Servants was the best-run not-for-profit organization I’ve ever worked with, before or since: new groups were instructed to arrive at the airport wearing easily identified green World Servants T-shirts, and with all their luggage packed in easily identified green World Servants duffel bags. One driver had a clipboard, and would shepherd the chattering teens from South Carolina into the vans; another driver would corral the correct number of duffel bags from the luggage carousel and sling them into a separate van.
The actual work was pretty well-organized, too: we were building small houses (very small houses, from toolshed plans) in the ghettoes of Reynosa, Mexico. The colonias were built in garbage dumps, on floodplains, so having a place to live — even an 8×12 shed — with a wooden floor off the ground meant that babies had a much reduced sickness rate. The houses were about the right size for a group of ten kids to build during a one-week work session. Any given week, we had about three hundred kids from a dozen church groups, thirty youth group leaders from those chuches, and five volunteer West Texas contractors on site. Every morning at sunrise, everyone would pile in to school buses for the ride across the border into Mexico. After a blistering day of work, we’d drive back to Texas for swimming and relaxation.
During the weekends, we did all the bits that required power tools: we ripped the plywood sheathing to width, we cut notches in the fascia boards, and cut window headers. We then (and I’m very proud of this) color-coded all the lumber, and gave out illustrated instructions to all the teams. A contractor might think “nail the pre-cuts to the sill plate on fifteen-inch centers”, but he could look at the plans and say, in a drawling Texan accent, “okay, son, get five yellow boards and nail them to the blue board where the pencil marks are.”
The toughest part of the job, frankly, was getting all this brand-new lumber across the border. It was worth a lot of money, and it was all donated. Fortunately, World Servants had a liaison in Reynosa in the person of Dr. Rommel Kott Cuellar, a 24-year-old plastic surgeon who was dating the mayor’s daughter and drove a white Mercury Tracer with tinted windows and nitrous injection. Rommel’s dad was German, and he did something with the Mexican government. I’m not sure what it was, but Rommel lived with his family in a walled compound with satellite dishes in it and armed guards at the gate.
(more to come.)