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In a forgotten border city, compassion and hope

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: During this holiday season, the Journal is featuring organizations that brighten the lives of others and show how you can help. To donate to Border Partners, visit its website at https://borderpartners.org/help-border-partners/

PUERTO PALOMAS, Mexico – Juan Rascón Ramírez watches a girl splash gleefully in a muddy puddle along the street where he once played as a child.

“That’s what I used to do,” he said, with a hearty chuckle. “Oh, those years, when everything was fun.”

Despite the occasional rush of nostalgia, growing up here wasn’t easy.

Like many, Rascón lived in poverty. He said he and his siblings often went to school without shoes or wore sizes too big or small. And those were the few days when they didn’t miss class altogether to work in the fields with their father.

Rascón now serves as the point man in Chihuahua, Mexico, for Border Partners, a Deming-based nonprofit that aims to better the lives of the community in ways both big and small.

“Getting a paycheck is one thing,” Rascón said. “But getting a smile from somebody in real need, and the appreciation they show for it … it tops everything else.”

Children run home after school in Palomas, Mexico. Border Partners, an organization devoted to providing a healthy sustainable lifestyle in this border community, works to provide safe drinking water through the installation of water filters in local schools.

Through a network of volunteers, university professors, inventors and donors on both sides of the fence, Border Partners has improved the quality of drinking water at schools. It also promotes healthy living habits, provides opportunities for youth and cares for the most vulnerable.

Home to around 5,000 people, Palomas sits on the other end of Columbus, New Mexico, and endures an estimated 80% unemployment rate. Although crime is relegated to the occasional horse or cow theft, cartel-related violence springs up now and then. The town has one government health clinic, with only two doctors, no hospital and the infrastructure is nonexistent. Almost all of the roads are unpaved and become mud-logged after a rain, as they cut past the gutted skeletons of brick buildings and silent factories interspersed with impoverished neighborhoods.

When it comes to assistance, Border Partners general manager Samantha Apodaca said Palomas has been lost in the long shadow cast by Juárez, its neighbor 90 miles to the east.

“Palomas is so underserved it’s insane. There’s just nothing there; the government doesn’t do anything,” she said. “A lot of people, they just take everything to Juárez. Palomas is just pushed to the side.”

Juanita Flores Lerma, right, a project manager with Border Partners, delivers a meal to 92-year-old Elena Villas in Palomas last week.

Founded in 2008 by Luna County residents Peter and Polly Edmunds and Helena Myers, Border Partners functions on the kindness of donors from New Mexico and beyond. Grants and the tireless efforts of Palomas residents like Rascón and a multitude of local volunteers are also pivotal to the organization’s work.

Although everything the organization provides is free, Apodaca said it operates on the old adage: “If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

The organization stockpiles donated bike parts from Silver City and teaches residents to restore the bikes and keep them afterward. They grow produce all across town and give it away, along with lessons on how to grow their own.

“It’s not just about giving. It’s about teaching,” Apodaca said. “… They just want a better life at the end of the day, and why not help them make it in their own community and be proud of their community. I think that’s an important lesson.”

Schools are the key

Those lessons often start at the root, with children.

Middle school students drink from a filtered water fountain installed by Border Partners. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

The Palomas school system contends with a lot: teacher shortages, a lack of facilities and high dropout rates. And, until recently, it also used the same water – full of arsenic and high levels of fluoride that cause teeth erosion, cancer and weak bones – that the rest of the community drinks.

But Border Partners teamed up with an expert to change that.

“Water is life, amigo,” Rascón said heartily as he showed off a water filter recently installed at a local middle school, Escuela Secundaria 25.

Designed by New Mexico State University professor and water filter expert Robert Marquez, the cost-efficient and safe filters have been placed in every school in Palomas.

Adauto Chávez Sánchez, a dance teacher at Escuela Secundaria 25, called it “one of the most important projects in the community” that gives his students a better quality of life.

“When the kids used to drink the water, it showed in their teeth, they get brownish,” he said. “It makes them feel bad, and their self-esteem suffers because of the appearance.”

Chávez said the schools themselves are “the key” to offering the children a chance at success.

“The school is open to them always, instead of going out to do bad things. Our doors are always open so they can have options,” Chávez said. “To look for something good instead of bad, to try to influence the community.”

Helping the children toward a brighter future, Border Partners facilitates programs in the classroom to teach about pregnancy and substance abuse prevention, proper nutrition and anti-bullying.

José Luis Villa Serrato, principal at Escuela Secundaria 25, said the resources “make a difference” in a middle school where almost half of the students drop out.

“You got to foresee what’s going to come, you got to see down the future – getting into trouble or maybe the girls marrying a bad guy – to say, ‘Hey I can grow up to be something,'” Villa said.

Unfortunately, to foster success, he said, educators are forced to separate the children into groups, between the least-driven and those who want to excel, so one group doesn’t negatively affect the other.

Teachers in Palomas are in dire straits of their own.

Cuban immigrants seeking asylum watch the news in a Palomas hotel last week. Border Partners has supplied them with shelter and supplies.

With nine teachers, each overseeing dozens of students at the school, teacher supervisor Manuel Montes Franco said the workload is immense.

One teacher, for example, is responsible for teaching math, physics, history and art.

“That’s too much,” he said. “It’s really tough.”

Border Partners helps teachers where it can, mainly with supplies, and Rascón said they have stocked the schools with laptops, tablets, projectors and white boards.

Outside the classroom, Border Partners built a computer lab with internet and furnished a library for anyone, not just children, to use.

The nonprofit put up basketball courts, soccer fields and volleyball courts, and organized events during the summer to encourage kids to get out and be active.

“The more we do, the more people get drawn to our project,” Rascón said. “It’s the little things. … We feel we’re doing something very positive for the community.”

Healthy practices

Juana Flores is a busy lady. But it wasn’t always this way.

“A while ago I used to suffer from depression, but being involved in all of this gives me the energy to keep moving,” she said. “Something as simple as a text message from a kid, or one of the parents, saying ‘How’d you wake up this morning, Juanita?’ Something so small lifts my spirits.”

Juan Rascón Ramírez walks through a greenhouse he helped build in Palomas, Mexico, through Border Partners. Cuban immigrants seeking asylum watch the news in a Palomas hotel last week. Border Partners has supplied them with shelter and supplies.

As Border Partners’ project manager, Flores is Rascón’s right hand in Palomas – doing everything from distributing vegetables in the community to helping those who can’t care for themselves.

“I got batteries for all day,” the 43-year-old said with a broad smile. “You know they say that your skin wrinkles but the heart’s always young.”

Flores uses her green thumb, honed working the fields in Hatch, to oversee 32 rain-barrel-fed community gardens across Palomas – a place known for having weak soil and little precipitation.

And Flores is using her knowledge to teach future generations to provide for themselves – despite the conditions around them.

To ingrain healthy practices in community members, Flores runs workshops with children, showing them how to compost, grow their own vegetables and even run several gardens on their own.

The bounty – including lettuce, chard, celery, tomatoes, spinach and much more – is available to anyone in town and is also integrated into the school meals, where vegetables were once few and far between.

“We basically hit the nail on the head,” Flores said.

In a nation ranked as one of the highest for diabetes and obesity, any little bit helps.

To that end Flores runs 40 Zumba classes every month where she teaches residents from age 20 to 63 to get some exercise and stay active. For those who are bedridden, sickly and alone, Flores and promotoras – community members trained to provide basic health education – cook meals and deliver them to homes of the elderly.

Five days a week, Flores drives through the neighborhood with soup or a meal of some kind in to-go containers.

At the first house she gets out and announces her presence. Armando Peru, an elderly man with Parkinson’s disease, comes to the door and accepts the meal graciously. In another home a bedridden woman waits until Flores rouses her from beneath the covers with a smile. One elderly woman, Margarita, is already waiting in her yard when Flores shows up.

“I look forward to having this, I’m always waiting for you to come by,” Margarita said. “You make my day.”

In this struggling community where dirt roads are the norm and jobs are about as scarce as pavement, the free meals are a godsend. But so, too, are the people showing up with a helping hand. And a hearty dose of compassion.

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