CIUDAD JUÃREZ, Mexico – Olga de León is all smiles as she begins to show her home – a house made from wood pallets – to guests on a recent afternoon.
But when she points out bags of trash and clothing stuffed into crevices near the ceiling, de León’s expression changes to grave concern. The extra insulation was meant to curb the rain and wind from the night before, but it did little to help. Instead, it’s making the home significantly hotter as the midday sun beats down. There’s no air conditioner, but there are buckets filled with rain water placed along the concrete floor.
When asked where she and her six family members sleep, de León, 62, gestures to the two beds against one wall and a mattress tipped up over more trash that had been moved to make room to walk around.
“We are women of struggle, of work,” she says in Spanish. “I am infinitely grateful for the rest of my life, even with no (secure) living place.”
Help on the way
De León’s situation is not unique in the colonias outside of Ciudad Juárez. Thousands of families live in wood pallet homes making $40 a week even with overtime, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.
But de León and others see a light at the end of the tunnel in Jane Fuller and her El Paso-based nonprofit Siguiendo los Pasos de Jesús.
“Our mission is to help a total family’s basic needs,” said Fuller, 65. “That’s a pretty broad mission. So we educate you, we help you find a job. We support the community as far as food and clothing and housing and education and medical all together.”
Since 2000, Fuller has been assisting the 4,000 or so families who live in colonias on the outskirts of Juárez – between kilometer 30 and 33 of the highway Carretera a Casas Grandes – about a 40-minute drive from the Santa Teresa port of entry in southern New Mexico.
De León said Fuller and SPJ have helped her in many ways – especially food and medical services – and she hopes one day to move her family into a home custom built by her neighbors and with funding from the nonprofit.
Building a community
Fuller has been helping the colonias’ residents for 20-plus years through her nonprofit, which routinely brings food, hygiene products, clothing and other basic necessities to the neighborhood.
In 2006, Fuller founded the SPJ nonprofit and began to build homes and infrastructure.
SPJ has built 566 safe and stable homes, as well as a market, two parks, a library, a church and a health clinic that’s open once a month with volunteer medical professionals.
“These are people that want to make it there where they live,” Fuller said, not those “dying to come to America.”
To that end, Fuller had construction workers from Texas teach some of the men in the area how to build houses, so they are the ones getting paid to work. SPJ also gets all its building materials from Juárez. Now, SPJ contracts with business owners based in the colonias who can do work such as window and door framing and glass cutting.
“Because the idea is BSC – building sustainable communities,” Fuller said.
SPJ will custom build homes for each family, some who have 15-plus members. The cost to build each home is about $7,500. The money goes to supplies and labor.
Before SPJ builds a house, the resident must own the land on which it is built.
SPJ does have limited housing available for families awaiting a home to be built. Fuller said de León and her family will move into that housing in September after another family moves out and into their permanent house.
Fuller said this will be a long-term temporary solution until de León can pay off her land, which could be years.
De León says she’s been able to save about $2,400 over the last year – much of that thanks to other services SPJ provides. To buy the land would be about $7,224, minimum.
“Every day I pray to Christ for (Fuller), for Nuri (the mercado manager), for Mr. Martín (the foreman), for all of you who gather in your help and work that you give others, that He blesses you and guards you forever” de León said.
How it began
Fuller and her family relocated to El Paso in 2000. Her husband, Jack, worked for Philips Electronics and his office was in Mexico.
One day, Jack’s secretary invited the Fullers to her house in Juárez and showed them around the city.
“I was not used to poverty that was generational,” Fuller said. “I was used to homeless people, whether it’s from psychiatric problems or a paycheck away from the street or addictions, but to see people that were born into the cycle of poverty was very humbling.”
In the beginning, Fuller, her husband, and her six children would cross the border weekly to bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to families. Fuller jokes that SPJ also means “special peanut butter and jelly.”
Later, Fuller began asking neighbors and family friends for food and donations to give to the families she saw in the colonias and the mission grew from there.
Fuller’s faith is a huge part of her work, hence the English meaning behind the program’s name: Following the Footsteps of Jesus.
“My faith plays 100%,” Fuller said. “I’ve had a lot of medical issues along the way. People that have had the same things have not made it, and I’ve made it in at this point.”
Fuller survived breast cancer twice, years before starting the foundation. She said after she was fully healed, she wanted to do something to give back in the name of her faith.
Cyr is a corps member for the Report for America initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Cyr on Twitter.