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The following article, oririginally titled "The Little House of Miracles," was used as a frontpage cover story by the Diocese of Rochester's "Catholic Courier."
May 11, 2000 (Vol III, 21). Photos were provided by staff photographer, Andrea Dixon.
The article is about my family's experience with a unique and wonderful orphanage--"Eugenesis"--which works to save the street children of Guadalajara, Mexico. The orphanage's mission was to provide a "new beginning" for these children, particularly young girls their siblings and their babies.
In 1997, When our family was transferred to Guadalajara, Mexico we never worried about church. We knew, after-all, that Mexico is a Catholic Country and would have no lack of churches. What we had not counted on was how isolating our limited knowledge of Spanish would be. Nor that, in this city of five million people, there would be only one small church that provides mass in English.
St. Mary’s is actually more chapel than a church, with no permanent pastor and only a small congregation—mostly retirees, students, visiting businesspersons, and tourists. There are few families with children.
While we appreciated the opportunity to worship in our native language, we missed the feeling of community and the opportunities for service we had gotten accustomed to in our home parish, St. Ambrose Church in Rochester, New York.
Then In October 1998 something wonderful began to happen.
I had written a letter to our friend Mary Kay Oberst, asking for some family worship materials. Mary Kay is also the director of faith formation for St. Ambrose. I shared with her some of our feelings of isolation and helplessness. All around me was poverty and I could do so little to help
I also told her about a local organization I had encountered, call Eugénesis. Eugénesis rescues young girls from the streets (with their babies and/or younger siblings) in order to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and nurture them. I had met its director, Dr. Javier Lupercio Medina, at one of Eugénesis’ residences during one of my many excursions to explore the “real Guadalajara.” I was immediately impressed with Dr. Lupercio’s energy, faith and commitment to serve Mexico’s street children.
I cannot express how delighted I was when Mary Kay wrote back to say that my letter had touched the hearts of some of the parishioners back home, and that St. Ambrose wished to benefit Eugénesis with its annual Lights of Love project. She wrote:
“The Lights of Love” project involves asking people to give a donation of $5.00 in the name of a deceased loved one. Once we receive the donation, we add a light to our Advent giving tree and write the deceased person’s name on an Advent chain. The proceeds from this project are sent to different charitable causes. This year we would like to send the money to help support Eugénesis.
Having lived in Guadalajara for over two years, our family had come to respect Mexico very much and to love its beautiful, friendly, and hard-working people. However, we also continued to be dismayed by the poverty here—especially among the children.
Over 70% of our Mexican neighbors live in poverty. Over 40% live in “extreme poverty”--meaning they can not be sure of even one meal each day. Many of the poor are children who, from a very early age, are forced to work or beg in the streets. Some live in the streets as well.
Guadalajara is a modern metropolitan city with clean streets, gorgeous parks, several well-known universities and the familiar presence of many American businesses. Nonetheless, a recent government study found in the city’s downtown area at least 1600 children under the age of 14 whose only home is the streets.
Many of the street children are girls, some as young as eight years
old, who are forced to survive by becoming prostitutes. By the time they are 21, some of these girls have as many as 6 or 8 children of their own. In order to break this cycle of poverty, Eugénesis has chosen to rescue as many of the street girls as it can.
Eugénesis opened its first home in 1990 with only 6 girls. Since that time, it has served over 180 children and wishes it had the resources to do more. It tries to be more than an institution. It tries to be the home and family that these children have never known.
Eugénesis has chosen to help girls because it believes, as do many Mexicans, that girls—women—are the foundation of the family. They give life to others, then educate and provide the basic values that bond the family. The family in turn provides the basis for all of society. According to Eugénesis “If we save one girl, we will save an entire generation.”
Dr. Javier Lupercio Medina, the agency director, is a psychologist. As a young graduate student working with street children, he became so involved with his project, he never left. He is now the energy and the faith behind Eugénesis. When he heard of St. Ambrose’s commitment to his girls, he was both thrilled and touched that a congregation of strangers—from another country, would be so willing to help.
The idea for Eugénesis was initiated in 1986, by a group of Catholics concerned by the growing number of street children caused by Mexico’s social and economic problems.
Today, Eugénesis operates three homes and houses approximately 80 children at any one time. The main “casa” shelters 20 preadolescent and adolescent girls, their children and younger siblings--usually between the ages of 3 and 8. A second house cares for younger girls (1 to 8 years old), while a third works with young ladies between 15 and 18. Ultimately, the agency hopes to open and operate a total of seven such homes.
The need in all of Mexico is great. Only a block from where we live—in a rather exclusive, upper middle class neighborhood--a family with six children works the streets every day. It is not a choice for them. It is how they survive. From dawn’s first light, the mom walks between cars, hawking gum, puppets, or rubber maps of Mexico. Dad sells fruit or newspapers. Their baby, now about four months old, spends the day in a hammock tied between two trees. When traffic slows or the light changes, one of the family members walks by and rocks the hammock.
Meanwhile, the couple’s toddlers play with stones or empty bottles on the median strip near one of the busiest intersections in Guadalajara. Sometimes the boy is tethered to a tree to keep him safe. After school and on weekends, the three older children join the family. They wash windshields or sell roses well into the night. I imagine there is little time for “homework” and almost no chance their lives will ever change. Yet these children are lucky. They have a family who cares.
Eugénesis girls have been abandoned by their families. Some have been beaten for failing to beg enough money for their own food. Others have been sexually abused or prostituted.
Rescued when she was barely two years old, Gladys had been badly abused by her parents. She arrived with bruises and marks all over her tiny body, including the clear imprint of a shoe on her chest. In addition, her ears had been repeatedly bitten. But this was not the worst. Gladys, barely out of infancy, had also been sexually violated.
Juanita’s case is as heartbreaking as Gladys’. She arrived at Eugénesis at the age of 13, suffering from serious malnutrition and weighing only 57 pounds! On the streets, she was literally starving to death.
“We needed to develop a special diet for her and she ultimately regained her health,” says Dr. Lupercio. “Sadly, however, we could not cure her developmental disabilities that resulted from so many years of malnutrition.”
Today, Juanita eats well and is a happy, friendly child. But in a country with such overwhelming poverty and almost no governmental support for social services, her future as a disabled adult is not a bright one. She is likely to live in institutions her entire life.
Gladys and Juanita are but two examples of Mexico’s street children for whom we all should share responsibility. Eugénesis created to “care for that which has been created,” tries to meet their responsibility by offering at least some of the children an alternative life.
And though many of the children’s stories have sad beginnings, the endings are full of hope and promise. Maru is a beautiful young woman of 17 who within the year will need to leave the protective shelter of Eugénesis. She came to Eugénesis as an abandoned and abused child. There she was fed, sheltered and provided with clothes, shoes and health care. She was also given chores and taught responsibility. Her birthdays and achievements were celebrated and her mistakes lovingly corrected. She found “sisters” to gossip with and adults who protected and cared for her. She found a family.
Maru is now finishing high school and planning a career in business or accounting, but also thinks she will return often to Eugénesis as a volunteer. She says, “This is my true family. This is where I learned how to get ahead in my life.”
A family-like atmosphere is the key to Eugénesis success. It tries to be more than just another orphanage warehousing children. It strives to give the girls a feeling of home and family. Its live-in staff is hired as surrogate “mothers” not only to take care of the girls, but to provide them with strong role models as well.
Imagine parenting 20 girls! Not an easy job. And the staff at Eugénesis are paid only 6 pesos an hour. (That is about $4.00-5.00 a day) As Dr. Lupercio says, “It is not a job to become rich. It is a job of love.”
The same kind of love that the parishioners of St. Ambrose showed by choosing to help these children so far away from their own families and so easy to pretend did not exist. (Of course, Mary Kay and my family did a little to help their memories. With weekly letters in the church bulletin and a bulletin board covered in photos of the girls, we tried to keep Eugénesis in the forefront of people’s minds. Photos do a lot to tell a story.)
The first time I visited Eugénesis, the children showed me a treasured photo album documenting Christenings, First Communions, birthdays, and graduations. We came across a picture of a little boy, the son or sibling of one of the street girls that Eugénesis rescues.
About 2 years old, this child, whom we might call Luis, had deep brown eyes you could fall into. His smile was so big and bright, the picture practically glowed. A beautiful child! The kind of kid you automatically scoop up into your arms and hug. So like one’s own child with a fistful of wildflowers! Or a grandchild with a milk mustache and stolen sugar cookie! Who could not love such a child?
“Yes, he has done very well with us,” Dr. Lupercio says in his serious, soft-spoken voice. “He is now fat and happy. But he spent six months in the hospital before coming here.” When I ask why, I am horrified at the answer. As a tiny, abandoned infant, Luis was discovered in a pile of garbage by a pack of street dogs. Why he was not killed and eaten is a mystery—and a miracle.
But then again, Eugénesis is a place of miracles when it comes to dealing with children--and its staff and volunteers are guardian angels. Yet, operating a miracle home is not without its problems. While Eugénesis is recognized and appreciated by state and local governments, it receives no financial support from them. Eugénesis is dependent on donations of money, goods and services from individuals and private businesses.
Although it costs only $100 a month per child to operate, the agency still struggles. It lives from hand to mouth, never quite sure how it will pay its next month’s bills.
“Sometimes I worry,” says Lupercio “that I will not have enough money to properly feed my children.”
Unlike the U.S. Mexico does not have Welfare. It cannot afford it. Yet, while the government does not support the orphanage financially, it does regulate it heavily. Dr. Lupercio stated that if any of the children should ever die from an illness or injury, there would be a major investigation. Such an investigation could take weeks or months and a lot of legal fees to clear up.
“We have been very lucky,” says Dr. Lupercio. “No child has died while under our care.” Considering that the children commonly referred to Eugénesis are malnourished with parasites and other illnesses, the agency has been lucky. Considering that it also rescues children like Luis, who are on the very edge of death, it is more than luck. It is a miracle.
As the Christmas season began in Guadalajara, I became very attuned to miracles. Outdoor florists blossomed with noche buenas, the plants we call poinsettias. Nativity sets (naciemientos) were pulled from storage and arranged on tables, under trees and on front lawns. The music of Handel’s Messiah and “Silent Night” filled the air. And little white lights began to twinkle outside the houses like tiny stars to light the way to Bethlehem for María and José.
Yet, for los niños de la calle, the street children, the Christmas season would bring little change in their lives. The nights would be a bit colder. More would become sick from flu and respiratory infections. And while they might be able to beg a few more pesos from passing cars, these children would continue to wonder whether they would eat that day.
Their plight reminded me of that of Mary and Joseph. On that first Christmas, when the Holy couple sought shelter and food, they were repeatedly turned away. How little have things changed! Today, things are not much different for the street children. We look at them and say: “We have no room!” “You are strangers, we don’t know you.” “Our families are here, we can’t be bothered with you.” There still is no room at the inn.
But Eugénesis is a house of faith and therefore one of little miracles. Like the owner of the stable where Jesus was born, the people of Eugénesis have said, “We do not have much but we will share with you as much as we have.” And with little more than a great faith in God and a great love of children, Dr. Javier Lupercio Medina and his staff opened their doors to these children. And they have held those doors open since 1990.
In eight years, more than 180 girls, their children and their siblings have been rescued and rehabilitated by Eugénesis. All needed shelter and were housed. Most were suffering from malnutrition and were fed. Others had been beaten or sexually abused and were healed.
The key to Eugénesis’ success is love. It accepts these children, not merely as guests, but as family members. The children are not just sheltered and cared for, they are also educated, disciplined, taught values, and loved. They may remain with Eugénesis until they reach adulthood at age 18.
Some return to families that are able to prove financial stability. A few are adopted. But over the years, more than 70 girls have stayed full term with Eugénesis then married into middle class families or begun careers. In all, Eugénesis has had an astounding success rate of close to 99%! Their children do not return to the streets.
And when our parish decided to work on behalf of Eugénesis it too began t make miracles. Its “Lights of Love” program raised over 11,000 pesos for Eugénesis. Although to the orphanage this was a small miracle itself. It wasn’t the end.
As in the story of the loaves and the fishes, the church’s generosity multiplied and helped to increase support here in Mexico. A group of expatriate American women, learning about St. Ambrose’s “Lights of Love,” gift decided to help too. They and their children made sure each Eugénesis child had his or her own special gift on Christmas morning.
My family and two others delivered the gifts on Christmas Eve. It felt holy, as though we were in church. I for one no longer felt isolated and powerless. (Even my teenage daughter was moved. “They are so beautiful and so sad,” she observed. “I wish I could have done more.”) For myself, I no longer felt isolated and powerless. I had again connected with a faith community—one larger and greater than ever before. And for me the brightest stars in Guadalajara that Christmas were the ones in those children’s eyes.