Over the weekend I caught up with Gene Westlund, who told me about his recent trip to Tijuana to expand an orphanage with seven other men from his men’s group at the Community Covenant Church in Twisp.
Gene got connected to the Tijuana orphanage through Methow Valley part-timer Paul Eklund. Paul was involved in orphan adoptions in Romania many years ago, and then became immersed in orphan issues in Lima, Peru, and with his wife, Grisella, took numerous groups of Methow Valley residents to work in and on orphanages in that city. Lately, Paul’s focus has been on training orphan care workers to adequately cope with some of the many medical, emotional and psychological challenges orphans face, such as detachment issues and insecurity.
While working in Mexico, Paul learned about an orphanage in Tijuana with 27 residents that needed to nearly double its size. When Gene and his fellow men’s group members heard about this orphanage’s need, they knew they could make a difference.
“We’ve all been hearing about these caravans of immigrants in the news,” says Gene. “Well, when those caravans reached the U.S. border, many of the people could not cross over.” Tijuana, says Gene, already had 2,200 kids living on the streets and in warehouses. This population swelled to more than 2,800 with the addition of 600 new kids whose caravans failed to gain entry to the United States.
Gene, who has worked as a general contractor in the past, and his crew, consisting of seven equally capable handy types, spent a week living in a hostel in Tijuana while they framed and finished a 35-foot by 78-foot addition to the orphanage, to accommodate an additional 20-25 kids in the facility.
“It was a wonderful exchange,” says Gene of the experience. Although Gene’s Spanish is, in his own words, “quite limited,” he found the universal sign language of the building trades to be immensely effective. “A few of the orphan boys spoke a little bit of English,” he says, “and we put them to work. We taught them how to use nail guns and they helped with the roof, they pulled electrical wire, and we even showed a few of the older ones how to install outlets.” Working with the kids, Gene says, was one of the best parts of the trip.
Although providing food and shelter is critical for parentless children’s survival, they need more, says Gene. “That’s why Paul is putting his energy into training workers, so that these kids can have a fighting chance to become full adults. It’s not just giving them a place to sleep and eat while they ride out their childhoods; it’s giving them a chance at a future,” he says.
To learn more about the Tijuana project, as well as more about Paul’s larger mission and work, visit www.mylightshine.com.