It has been one of those years in which, if I didn't have any photographs,…
El Centro Infantil De Los Angeles de San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
When I was twenty-three years old I purposely became homeless for two weeks. I wanted to challenge my privilege as a college-educated white man. I wanted to challenge beliefs I held about homelessness and people-in-need in general. I was also a young wanna-be anthropologist who believed that anthropology, despite its past, could be a force for justice in the world.
And so there I was, on the streets of the big city with five $1 bills in my pocket, a few coats and a sleeping bag. Of course, I wasn’t truly homeless. I actually shared a house with my three best friends. I also had parents in Colorado who could help me. And I had a job to return to. If things got really bad, I could just go home. Aware of this privilege I set off to see if I could get at least some idea of what it would be like to be homeless.
What shocked me most, right off the bat, was how many people are homeless just from bad luck. One guy I’ll never forget had been a bank executive. Then, over the course of two years, he got divorced, his Ex took a huge portion of his pay, he crashed skiing and his insurance wouldn’t pay for the most expensive of the reconstructive surgery, then his bank sold and he was “let go”, he lost his house, ended up renting, interviewed for a bunch of jobs but nothing came up and it went downhill from there. The guy didn’t drink. He didn’t do drugs. He wasn’t mentally ill.
I met a shocking number of people like him on the streets that year. Bad luck. That’s all it took to end you up on the street. And then there are the people with mental issues and those with substance issues none of whom could get any help.
Try talking to a homeless or poor person sometime. Better yet, both. You’ll be stunned at what you learn.
One of the things I learned those two weeks was that no, not everyone can just simply go out and get a job. There are countless barriers to gaining employment. It is next to impossible to “think ahead” or plan when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep each night or what you’re going to eat for the next meal. Classified ads? Job application? Shower? Nice clothes for an interview? Hell, I just want to be warm, dry and safe tonight. Hell, I just need to get something in my belly.
The barriers to employment are especially true for women for a number of reasons. For a woman seeking employment the issue of childcare is a major hurdle to overcome – and often times its an insurmountable hurdle.
Childcare is expensive and more often than not, it simply is not available.
A Place for Children
In October 2018, my friend Nancy Mueller and I crammed into a small, suspension-less taxi for a ride across the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende to El CENTRO INFANTIL DE LOS ÁNGELES, a not-for-profit school in one of the poorest parts of the city. Along with us were Sharon Gonzalez & Tom Travers, owners of Eat the Peach Travel, a boutique tour company that offers small group cultural tours to Mexico, Costa Rica and Ireland.
(Photo Essay: Dia de los Muertos)
El Centro is the brainchild of Chicagoan Donna Quathamer. In the late 1990s she came to San Miguel. She noticed that one, there were many unemployed and underemployed women and two, there were a lot of women working difficult jobs with their infants tied to their back, wrapped in a blanket or toddlers following them around. Donna asked the women what they needed most to improve their lives. Again and again the answer came: “daycare”. They needed a safe place to leave their children so that they could work.
Donna opened El Centro in 2000 with the expressed goal of offering a safe, educational and loving place for women in need to leave their children while they worked.
(Poverty isn’t a lack of character, its a lack of cash)
We were met at the door by Carola Lepe Fernandez a Tijuanensa who had left to Europe and returned several years later with her English boyfriend in tow. Today, Carola is the Communications and Outreach Manager for the CENTRO INFANTIL DE LOS ÁNGELES. Carola led us through the growing two-story school to meet the kids.
We found a bright, clean, orderly and open space. A central outdoor plaza area was surrounded by classrooms, administration offices and the new kitchen. My favorite smell…fresh garlic and onions being fried up in olive oil and cumin…poured from the kitchen. A bunch of little people filed out from one of the rooms, they waved and passed outside to the playground.
Between the day care-center and the pre-school there are nearly 200 children in the red-painted building. The school is free but mother must apply and there is a waiting list. Mothers must be employed (there are a few single fathers whose children attends the school), they must volunteer one day a month and unless the child is sick, they aren’t allowed to miss school. With their own kitchen and chef cooking nutritious meals, El Centro is focused on the children.
Food, Shelter, Education, Love – It Makes a Difference
The kids at the school come from some of the poorest families in the area. Many of the families served by the school live on the outskirts of town in homes without access to water or even electricity. Often, a large number of family members live in a very small space.
And yet, the impact of the school on these kids is profound. Not only are their parents now able to work and improve their economic situation but the children are scoring impressively on standardized tests. The school reports that:
“over 70% of their scores were “above average” or “outstanding” in standardized tests given by the Secretary of Education. No scores were below average. Our teachers scored 93 out of 100 in their evaluations, and the school was one of 3 schools in San Miguel (a city of over 120,000) that was recognized for special achievement by the Secretary. In the same round of testing one of our graduates, now in the second grade, got the top score of all students in all the primary schools in San Miguel. Since academic results usually are correlated with socio-economic status we are especially proud of what these economically disadvantaged children have achieved.”
One of the reasons El Centro is so successful is because of the volunteers. On our visit to the school, Nancy, Tom, Sharon and I met a volunteer from Denmark and three Americans. At times the school hosts upwards of fifteen volunteers from all corners of the globe. Volunteers do everything from simply playing with the kids to running arts and crafts, programs, changing diapers, organizing field trips, fundraisers and teaching English.
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Several years ago, on a trip to San Miguel de Allende, Tom and Sharon stumbled upon El Centro. The next year they drove a car loaded with clothes, diapers and other donations for the school from New Jersey to San Miguel. (“Diapers!” Carola told us, “We can’t ever get our hands on enough diapers!”). Later, Tom and Sharon’s own children began volunteering at El Centro.
When they started Eat the Peach Travel two years ago Tom and Sharon partnered with El Centro. For their Day of the Dead Tours to San Miguel, Eat the Peach sponsors one child for a year at El Centro in the name of the group from that year. The donation covers a teacher’s salary, daily breakfast & lunch, classroom supplies, birthday gifts, and spare clothes/diapers/shoes. All money goes directly to day-to-day support for the child in the daycare.
YOU Can Help
There are several ways you can help support the mission of El Centro Infantil De Los Angeles de San Miguel de Allende.
- Buy Diapers! Contact Carola and ask how you can donate diapers, clothing or other important items to the school.
- If you think volunteering at El Centro might be of interest to you, click here.
- Sign up for the Day of the Dead Tour with Eat the Peach Travel or sponsor someone for a trip!
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Several years after my homelessness experiment, I ended up homeless again. This time it wasn’t by choice. It didn’t last long. Three months. But it sucked. It sucked bad. Although I grew up middle-class I’ve experience poverty in my life. It sucks. It sucks bad. But from those experiences I developed a deep well of compassion and understanding. It also made me angry. Poverty doesn’t just happen. It is created. And it is deeply wrong.
More often than not it’s the most privileged members of our society who point the finger at those in need and accuses them for their station in life. It’s the “blame the victim” mentality that keeps unjust economic structures in place. Talk to a homeless person. Talk to a working mother. More often than not what they need is just a little security so that they can help themselves up. That’s just what El Centro and its supporters offer.
We’re all in this together, after all.