By Patty Roy
For the last 15 years the Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church has been heading to Tijuana, Mexico with an organization called Project Mexico, an group of Orthodox Christians that also supports the St. Innocent Orthodox Orphanage.
“Over the last 35 years, this organization has built 420 homes. What you do, is you build a very simple home for a family,” said Father Luke Veronis, Presiding Priest of Sts. Constantine and Helen said.
The group from Sts. Constantine and Helen shares a meal at Project Mexico. Photos submitted by Father Luke Veronis
“The homes that people were living in often times had no windows or doors or solid roofs,” he said. The newly built homes have a concrete foundation, secure roof and doors that lock, he said.
The church has taken around 70 of their own parishioners for a week, along with another 100 volunteers from other churches as well as friends of their parishioners and students from Shepherd Hill Regional, Bartlett High and Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High Schools.
The ages of the volunteers have ranged from 11 to 79 years, Father Luke said. This year they had eight teenagers and 10 young adults in their 20s and the rest of the volunteers were older.
“This summer we took 28 people and divided into two groups to build two homes,” he said. Completing two homes on one mission trip was a first for them.
“It’s sort of like a spiritual retreat in the sense that our group was joined by volunteers from different parts of America. There are interns who live there for the summer,” he said. “Two of the interns were my own daughters.”
Both his daughters have been on Project Mexico half a dozen times. Theodora, 23, recently graduated from St. Anselm’s College and has committed to the program for a year. Panayiota, 20, attends Salve Regina College. The commitment to service is a Veronis family ideal. Fr. Luke and his wife, Presbytera Faith have committed to the missions for years.
“My wife and I were missionaries in post-Communist Albania for 10 years,” he said. “We lived there at a time when Albania was the poorest country in the world. I also lived in Kenya for a year after college, so we have this interest and love in doing this adventurous type of service project in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The homes are built within a half hour radius of the ranch where St. Innocent Orphanage is located.
Project Mexico’s primary purpose is to build homes and the St. Innocent Orphanage houses teenage boys who have lost their parents. Over this summer, Project Mexico built 25 homes.
Families make their housing requests through Project Mexico. The homes are very simple, Father Luke stressed. There is no running water, but trucks bring water and can fill tanks. Project Mexico doesn’t run electricity into the houses, but the residents are able to put that in.
It is a life transformative experience for whoever goes, Father Luke promised.
The volunteers turn to a whole new life, where for a week, every morning they join in prayer, turn in eight to 10 hours of hard work every day and have a session of fellowship around the campfire every night.
“We all sleep in tents at the orphanage and there are very basic communal showers. It’s very basic for a typical American, yet it’s something that’s very adventurous and exciting,” he said.
There are wonderful interactions with the families for whom they are building homes.
“A single mother named Margarita had three children and she was just trying to survive. She was so grateful that we were giving her this new opportunity in life.
She was happy she didn’t have to worry about getting kicked out of her apartment,” Father Luke said.
Above, The Project Mexico volunteers by a nearly completed house., left, proud new homeowner. Photos submitted by Father Luke Veronis
Margarita was crying when the church volunteers handed her keys to her house on the last day, he reported and related her words, “This is a home that is mine and my children will have and no one can take it away from us.”
The whole infrastructure in Mexico is very precarious, Father Luke said, so they struggle in many ways.
“Margarita told us she worked every day from 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. in a factory, seven days a week,” he said. “Even though she had three young kids, she had to be away from home all day.”
With as little as they had, the people who were getting homes shared, offering the volunteers lunch over several days.
“We were reluctant to take it, to feed 25 people is a big expense,” he said. “Yet that is the joy they have in sharing.”
A touching experience happened when people who received homes in previous years came by to help. A man named Fernando got a home a decade ago, and each year he takes a day off work to help build houses for other people.
“He said, I want to share the blessing that I had with another family,” Fr. Luke said. “It’s the beauty of these relationships that we build.”
The volunteers fly to San Diego and take vans across the border. St. Innocent Orphanage is about 30 minutes across the border on the periphery of Tijuana and Rosarito.
“As soon as you cross the border, you realize you are in a whole new world,” he said. “The green of California changes to the dust and dirt of Tijuana. Part of the experience is you realize it’s a different world, yet the people are the same.”
The Sts. Constantine and Helen Church funds the mission in part. The cost is $1500 for airfare; each person would have to raise money to pay that. With church aid, that number comes down to $1100 or $1000, Father Luke said.
The trip is undertaken every year in July when the weather is in the 80’s and 90’s, with no humidity. Volunteers don’t need to speak Spanish. Breakfast and dinner are eaten at the orphanage and lunch was taken at the work site.
Father Luke recalls a couple named Mario and Maria from Los Angeles. Mario, a construction manager, wanted his teenage boys to have the experience of helping others and so Googled “building houses in Mexico.” The search led them to the Project Mexico site.
“Mario said, ‘I built multimillion dollar homes in Hollywood and Malibu, but this is different,” Fr. Luke said. “This house is built of the love of God.”
For more information, visit ProjectMexico.org.