Interview with the Founders of Project Amigo
Susan Hill and Ted Rose are two American expats living in the Mexican state of Colima and devoting their lives to helping underprivileged children in Mexico attain a better life through education.
On the surface, it would seem that retiring from your careers in the United States, leaving your friends and family behind, to move to a tiny village in the foothills of a volcano in Mexico was a bit random. How did you end up in the Mexican village where you now live?
Ted learned about the Parque Nacional del Nevado (the Snow Volcano National Park) in Colima in 1984, and decided to spend a week in Colima exploring it. His first attempt to reach the volcano was by public bus from the city of Colima. He didn’t speak Spanish and, therefore, he got on the wrong bus. He ended up in Cofradia de Suchitlan (the village we now live in) and had to spend several hours there before the bus returned to the city of Colima in the late afternoon.
Not speaking the language of the locals made his wait difficult. He sat in the village square feeling frightened and lonely. After a little while a group of children ran across the square and noticed him. He looked curious to them (he was bald and had hairy arms), and they came over to have a better look. He was relieved by the distraction, and enjoyed their laughter.
When the children realized he had no idea what they were saying, they found a neighbor who had worked in California to come and translate. This neighbor explained to Ted that the children were from that village as well as outlying villages, and that they came from very poor families who couldn’t support them to attend primary school. They lived in a boarding home run by the State Education Department, and the children took Ted in to see where they lived.
Ted was taken by their friendliness, and shaken by their poverty. The next day he hired a taxi to drive him to the volcano – and he had an excellent adventure with the taxi driver and his father. However, what left the greatest impact on him from his visit to Colima was not the volcano, but the children of Cofradia. When he came home, we decided to return to Colima together at Christmas and make a little fiesta happen for the children.
And that’s when our relationship with our little village began. We decided to move to Cofradia three years later with the goal of bringing more than “fish” to the children. Our hope was to help them develop their own fishing poles and success stories.
Tell us a little more about the work you do through Project Amigo.
Our primary focus is to encourage rural poor children to complete their primary level education, and to help the poorest and most motivated of them to continue to higher education once they finish primary school. Hundreds of wonderful donors in the US and Canada share our dream, and help us by funding scholarships to junior high, high school and university.
We’re proud to report that twenty-six of our students have graduated from the University of Colima since we began our high education scholarship program in the mid-1990’s. There are thirty-five students in college this year – all of whose scholarships are funded by generous people who believe, as we do, that education is the key to a better world.
Another focus in on the thousands of children in poor rural primary schools who benefit from our literacy programs. Reading for fun is a luxury enjoyed in the wealthier city schools. Poor rural children have little, if any, access to reading for fun and pleasure. We all know that reading for fun stimulates a desire to learn, and improves communication and reasoning skills. With help from volunteers, we distribute thousands of children’s’ books each year to poor rural schools.
Volunteers come from all over the world to take part in Project Amigo. Do you look for your volunteers to have particular skills, or how do you select them? And what is the demographic – do they tend to be young people or other retirees or families?
We’re blessed to have about 150 volunteers pass through Project Amigo each year. They’re all fabulous people – and they range from 6 or so years old to more than 80 years old. Some come as families, some are Rotarians who come with other members of their Rotary Clubs, and some come on their own looking forward to making new friends among their fellow visitors.
Most of them visit Project Amigo through our 9-day work weeks that are held between November and March. The work weeks focus on different themes – literacy, carrying out the annual Christmas fiesta, a vision week (eyeglasses), and preventive dental health. What we need most are people who love to inspire children to learn, who will encourage them with their smiles and hugs and help them feel good about their scholastic accomplishments, and who will help them develop the social skills and self-confidence they’ll need in a few years when they face school and job interviews. These are skills they are not going to learn at home, and they are vital to the students’ success and development.
From a volunteer perspective, what are some of the activities that volunteers most enjoy and talk about?
That’s a fun one. Most people talk about our great meals. And they all talk about the children they read with and the higher education students they met during their stay. Somehow they are touched by what they see, and they go home with a sense of satisfaction knowing that they contributed something important to the child or student. Even better, they talk about how much they benefitted from their changed view of the world.
Through Project Amigo, you have helped many young people achieve their educational dreams – to become doctors, lawyers, teachers. Can you share one of your favorite success stories?
Oh, we have some great ones! One of our first university graduates, Maria Concepcion Fonseca, finished medical school in 2008. She served her obligatory year of social service at a community health clinic in a small village. She answered to a doctor in the main health center in the county, and was the only physician at her clinic. Conny was honored at the end of her internship as the most outstanding physician in her class. She was made the Director of that health center, and where she was once the sole physician, she is now overseeing medical, dental and nursing school graduates who are fulfilling their social service years after completing their training.
Two of our students completed law school in 2008 and 2009. Mireya Rincon Torres now works for the State Government’s Youth Program and manages a small legal practice whose focus is on family and title law. Noe Hernandez was elected the mayor of his village the same month he graduated from college. He’s the first elected official in his village to have such a high level of education. He’s started homework clubs for primary school children that are based on the model of the homework clubs Project Amigo runs for its junior high and high school students. His cabinet members are Project Amigo university students. He, too, maintains a small legal practice focused on criminal and title law.
For anyone contemplating retiring to Mexico and starting their own nonprofit organization, do you have any tips? What about for volunteers?
For retirees, I’d say, “Don’t start your own.” Find a non-profit already engaged in what your interests are and join it and work to improve it. If you know where you want to live, first explore what’s already at work there. If there is nothing organized yet, it’s going to take a lot of time to start one, and the most important task is to assure that what you want to do is what the community wants or needs.
First, take your time getting to know your community. Spend time observing what you think the problems are, and then listen carefully to your neighbors’ answers when you ask them what they are concerned about. Don’t assume you know the answers. Don’t assume you know what’s wrong.
For volunteers, come with an open heart and an open mind and be ready to celebrate what rushes in when you least expect it. As we say in the Rotary world, “he profits most who serves best.” Come prepared to serve, and come prepared to feel your life shift as a result of the people you work with. You have much to teach, and you have much to learn. What a wonderful world that we can do both at the same time!
Thank you for your interview Susan and Ted!