When I was in high school I spent a week in Tijuana, Mexico building houses for poor people. That trip changed me. Or more precisely, one little girl in a turquoise shirt did.
My boyfriend’s church group was going over spring break and they needed more volunteers, preferably who could speak Spanish. I volunteered. Admittedly, I wasn’t into the whole Kumbaya-by-the-campfire church stuff. My issues with organized religion aside, I just mean to say that I wasn’t divinely inspired nor did I ascribe any religious relevance to the work we were doing. Building houses for people who didn’t have safe homes to live in fulfilled my humanitarian inspiration. I was excited to be there and felt proud of what we’d be doing.
We piled into the van and sped and bumped along the uneven roads. I watched the landscape fly by, having no idea what to expect, and hoping not to screw anything up. The natural landscape was strikingly similar to San Diego and yet there was no question that this wasn’t Southern California.
On the other side of the border the hilltops would have been adorned by mansions with huge windows for admiring the coastal vistas. Here, they were covered in a hodge podge of cardboard, old tires and plywood. Rusted vehicles lined the dirt streets and scrawny dogs skittered along, noses to the ground in search of food or garbage. Large plastic tubs sat in what could generously be called front yards. A water truck ambled along, kicking up dust until it stopped in front of a makeshift structure—more of a fort than a home. Its tenant came out, paid the man, and a hose was set up to fill the house’s water tank.
We came to a stop across from the house with the water truck and an excited woman waved to us, balancing a little girl on her hip as her other two daughters rushed out to greet us. This was the family we’d be helping.
In all, our group was building eleven houses. The neighborhood consisted of a number of small houses plopped on hard dirt parcels of land, constructed from an array of scrap materials ranging from plywood to cardboard to ripped mesh screens and a sagging roof on top. While I’m no expert, it didn’t appear built to code.
We started by leveling out the dirt for the new foundation and set the first two by fours into a neat rectangle that would become the new home’s hard floor. The work was physically demanding and the weather was hot. The mom of the family offered us food and water which we politely declined (as we’d been instructed to do) in deference to our sensitive American digestive tracts.
The oldest daughter—the one in the turquoise shirt—seemed very interested in our work. She was about ten years old and had a lot of questions for us about what we were doing. We answered as best we could and when she wanted to help mix the concrete we shrugged and reluctantly let her, expecting that she’d try it for a few minutes and then lose interest or get tired.
She worked all day every day with us, carrying heavy supplies, hammering, fetching tools, whatever she could do. She was all smiles. On one of the last days, as we were setting chicken wire for the stucco exterior, a friend of mine offered her a pack of gum.
That was when the little girl in the turquoise shirt did something that still stands out to me, twenty years later. She went around to every person working—not just on her house—but on her neighbor’s houses as well. She asked every one of us if we’d like a piece of gum, without taking one for herself.
I watched her silent act of selflessness in complete admiration. Any one of us could have gone to the corner store and bought ourselves a whole pack of gum. Most of us (myself included) would never have thought to ask anyone else if they wanted any. It was just gum. No big deal. But here she was giving away this precious surplus.
She shared a bed with four other family members. She had a dirt floor inside her home. She didn’t have indoor plumbing. She was poor. And yet … she shared her time, her efforts and her gift with us.
Whenever I hear someone complaining about handouts or lazy immigrants or the poor not helping themselves, I think about the little girl in the turquoise shirt. I think about the first time I recognized my own privilege. And I think about the fact that that little girl understood abundance, cooperation and generosity in ways that I’m still aspiring to.