By Pablo Jaime Sainz
Michel Garcia Martir has lived close to poverty.
Before living in San Diego, the college student lived in Tijuana, where she would see children selling gum or asking for money in the streets of Downtown.
Back then, she would feel impotent for not being able to do anything to help them.
“I was in middle school and it would fill me up with rage to see those children suffering of hunger. Even though I grew up seeing all of that, I didn’t know how to help them beyond giving them a coin or buying a piece of gum from them,” Garcia Martir said.
Today, when she’s about to finish her bachelor’s degree, this young woman can lend a hand to children living in the streets thanks to a program between San Diego State University and Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF), Tijuana’s government social services agency.
It’s an internship where SDSU students spend several hours a week at Centro para la Protección Social de la Niñez, a temporary shelter where about 15 children that have been abused physically and sexually are taken off the streets to receive psychological help, food and shelter.
The program, which began last summer, is sponsored by SDSU’s Latin American Studies Department and one of its main purposes is to provide a bridge through which college students can have a positive presence in the lives’ of the children, said Jennifer Daby, the intership program coordinator.
At the Centro, three times a week, about 10 SDSU students organize activities for children, whose ages are between 8 and 17 years.
One day they can teach a fun English language class, the next day they can do some arts and crafts.
Some of the children at the Centro have been forced to practice prostitution and to sell drugs; others have left their homes fleeing sexual and psychological abuse; still, others arrived in Tijuana after being deported by the U.S. Border Patrol.
“It’s difficult to hear these children’s stories, but you get to care a lot for them,” Garcia Martir said.
The common thing among these children is that, besides the Centro para la Protección Social de la Niñez, they have no one else for support.
“These children are no different from those children at home with their parents,” said Daby, who in addition to coordinating the internship is a student at SDSU’s Master in Latin American Studies. “We talk about anything, we laugh at the jokes we tell.”
This program is part of the Department of Latin American Studies’ effort to create stronger ties between SDSU and the city of Tijuana, according to Jim Gerber, director of SDSU’s Center for Latin American Studies.
“I think that in San Diego we have the advantage of living next to a major Latin American city like Tijuana, but unfortunately we haven’t taken advantage of this,” Gerber said.
Last October, Tijuana’s Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon gave a presentation at SDSU as part of that affort.
Maria Elvia Amaya, Tijuana’s DIF president and wife of Hank Rhon, said that children at the Centro para la Protección de la Niñez are very happy that SDSU students spend time with them.
“Sometimes these children, who were used to walk the streets, get bored of being at the Centro because they don’t have many activities. When the students come the kids get excited because the students offer them something to do that keeps them entertaint and busy,” Amaya said.
But it’s not easy to gain the children’s thrust, Daby said.
“Sometimes they see me as a friend, but others they see me as an authority figure and they don’t pay attention,” she said.
Life for a child in Tijuana’s streets is not easy, said Victor Clark Alfaro, a human rights activist in the region.
He said that there are about 8,000 children living in the streets in the city.
“This makes Tijuana a fertile field for pederasts and pedophiles,” he said. “Children face great difficulties, because they’re the most vulnerable group and they can’t defend themselves.”
The SDSU program tries to make these children smile, that they can have a moment of healthy fun, Daby said.
“They like it that we’re there. Even though we’re only there for a few hours a week, for some of those children we become their only family.”
Garcia Martir said that at night, when she goes to bed, she feels proud of helping change the future of some of the children on the streets, those that for many years she would see during her teenage years in Tijuana.
“We become a hope for those children,” she said.
The Centro para la Protección Social de la Niñez could use monetary donations as well as food and clothes. It is located in Downtown Tijuana. If you would like to contribute or would like further information, you can call (664) 688-1399 or (619) 688-1699.