February 15, 2002

From Salsas to neighborhood Unity; Chula Vista Group Makes a Difference

By Rosa Barajas

TIJUANA — When Teresa Franco wants to prepare salsa, all she has to do is go to the yard outside her house and cut some chiles and tomatoes. Or if she wants to prepare some beets for her family, she doesn't have to go searching for them at the store because she also has them there, growing in her vegetable garden.


María Angeles Luna, a community health worker (CHW) with Los Niños in Tijuana, lights a candle on a cake to celebrate the beginning of a three-year program designed to license people in community development. The innovative program will educate CHWs on various aspects of personal and community development.

About 10 years ago, a Community Health Worker (CHW) with Los Niños, a Chula Vista-based organization, taught her the importance of good nutrition and how she could grow her own vegetables.

But the teaching didn't stop there. In the meetings the CHWs held in Teresa's sons' kindergarten or a neighbor's home in the Mariano Mata-moros neighborhood of Tijuana, participants learned that being together made them stronger.

While they cooked or planted vegetable seeds in the new community garden, they listed the needs of the community, the main one being a lack of sewage. Seven months later, and after constant pressure on city authorities by the neighbors, the drainage work, which had been promised for years, finally started.

"Now the paving of the streets is about to be finished," said Teresa, who has witnessed not only the development of her community thanks to the efforts of her neighbors, but has also seen her own self-improvement.

She started as a participant in nutrition courses. Now she coordinates more that 30 CHWs who continue to share self-help knowledge throughout Tijuana's neighborhoods.

Los Niños started 27 years ago offering support to low-income communities in Tijuana, just as other border organizations have done. In time, however, Los Niños changed from just giving out assistance to a forum where neighbors develop their own tools to bring about personal and community development.

"It all started as a course on nutrition to improve the kids' diet, but with time we realized that nourishment is just only part of the daily issues a community faces and that true help consists of long-term development, where participants can find their own solutions, identify their own priorities and become self-sufficient," said Rigoberto Reyes, coordinator of border projects for Los Niños. He's been a part of the organization for 18 years.

However, one of the or-ganization's main problems is precisely the charity that the local communities are used to getting from the United States.

"There are a lot of institutions that fight over what they call clients. To us, they are participants," says Reyes.

According to Elisa Sabatini, executive director of Los Niños, the idea is to change that charity mentality and be able to make people understand and modify their surroundings and participate in their own development.

The nutrition classes and family gardens continue, not only in Tijuana where they are taught in about twenty neighborhoods, but also in Mexicali and San Diego. Every year, more than 3,000 people take part in the classes, and indirectly about 17,000 people benefit from the classes.

But learning about a healthy diet is not enough. It's also necessary to learn how to make money to support a household, the organization says.

Taking a cue from the idea that self-sufficiency is better than accepting charity, Los Niños created a system of small loans that allow people who dream of starting their own business to do so.

Loans have made many small businesses possible such as seamstress' shops, community kitchens, office supplies stores, and even a honey bee co-op in Mexicali that sells its honey locally. Los Niños is looking to sell the honey in San Diego, too.

Thanks to a $1,050 loan that Rosalina Luna received from Los Niños, she was able to start a seamstress' shop.

"(My place) is not much, I only have three sewing machines, but I make clothes with them that I can sell," says Luna, who at 54 still has the energy to work in her shop and work as a CHW with Los Niños. She also plans to finish her studies in fashion and dress making which were left unfinished many years ago.

With an annual budget of $700,000 Los Niños would not be able to make these loans by itself. But it is not alone. Organizations such as the Food For All Foundation, the International Community Foundation and the Kiwanis Club of San Diego are supporting Los Niños in its efforts.

And, Los Niños is well known throughout the United States, especially among college students. Yearly, about 600 students not only cross the border to Tijuana, but also cross the psychological border that divides the first world with reality of life in low-income communities.

Together, while they build schools and homes in the communities served by Los Niños, they also build a social conscience. "Sometimes they've even changed careers," says Sabatini, because not only do they learn what's happening at the border, but how the developing world works.

Plus, she says, the community grows stronger with the students' help. "Sometimes it is hard for the neighbors to participate in the work, but when they see the students working, they jump right in. They don't want to only receive, they also want to help," says Cristina Ayala, community groups coordinator for Los Niños.

For five years, Ayala has been a CHW with Los Niños. Like Teresa Franco and Rosalina Luna and the more than 50 CHWs who work with the organization, she too was one of the women who first came to learn about nutrition and how to feed their families better food. Soon, without pay, they were teaching others. Many have a minimal education and juggle their new job with obligations at home.

Community Health Workers are a key element in Los Niños' work. They know the neighbors and their needs, and they're the ones who seek solutions. They are also the ones who represent the fulfillment of the organization's mission: helping improve the human condition.

"It's wonderful to see the development and growth of our volunteers," says Reyes. "At first, you see a timid woman who feels ashamed to be noticed. Two years later, you can see them lecturing to a university group."

To help continue CHW development, Los Niños, together with Iberoamericana University and Canada's Simon Fraser University, started a program aimed at officially certifying their work and giving them the opportunity to improve academically. But not before the CHWs promise they will return to the community.

"We don't want to repeat what has happened in other institutions, that is, they teach but force the student to abandon his community," said Reyes. Nonetheless, he thinks the Los Niños' teachers have the social conscience to return and share their knowledge with the community.

About 90 teachers are taking part in the pilot program but about 300 CHWs in all are expected to participate in the program, which will last about three years.

Like most community organizations, Los Niños was affected economically by the events of September 11. However, says Sabatini, their work will continue because, as she puts it, "there are always volunteers."

(Reprinted from The Border health Initiative's "Border Reflections")

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