In 2008, Past District Governor (2005-06) Elly Contreras (Rotary E-Club of Canada One) and her husband and fellow Rotarian, Ramiro, arrived in Colima, Mexico, for a volunteer week with Project Amigo, with the expectation that “we will be changing lives.”
What they didn’t realize was that the lives that would be changed were theirs.
“Ten years ago, we came for a week of volunteering, not expecting the enormous impact it would make on our lives,” Elly says.
“I became a different person, with an appreciation for life I never expected. The little seed that was planted by Project Amigo grew and created a bond that brought me closer to the culture [of Mexico] and its people. I am proud to be part of the lives of so many young people who have so much potential. I have seen them develop into confident young adults. All they need are people like us, who empower them, support them and tell them they are worthy.”
Project Amigo was established in 1984, by two Rotarians from California, to provide educational opportunities to children from poor Mexican families who would likely have little hope without the organization’s support. The Project Amigo Canada Society was formed in 2008, with Elly as its first president.
Darrel Martin (RC of Edmonton Northeast), the current president of the board of directors for Project Amigo Canada, says, “Project Amigo takes kids from elementary school age up now to university. Seventy-one have graduated from university. When I first went there in 2008 there wouldn’t have been anyone in university.
“There is a lot of pressure from the family to go to work to help the family, because these families have almost no money,” Darrel says. “For boys, if their fathers work in the sugar cane field, there’s pressure on them to go to work in the sugar cane field. That’s part of the cultural thing we are working against with the program, but as time goes by, more and more are graduating and getting jobs and people see that is a good thing.”
He believes that attitudes are changing.
“Parents are realizing the bigger picture and thinking that my son or daughter is going to be able to do more for this family if we suck it up now and allow them to go to school.
During Project Amigo workweeks, volunteers assist with construction projects, deliver books and other materials to schools, and work with the children.
Many of the volunteers are Rotarians, but not all. “There have been non-Rotarians who have gone down there, and then come back and joined Rotary,” Darrel says.
To learn more about workweeks, or to volunteer to spend a week in Cofridia, in the state of Colima, visit the Project Amigo Canada website.
Since their first workweek, Ramiro and Elly returned often to work with the Project Amigo staff and now spend half the year in Mexico, where Elly serves as the Canadian Intermediary/Co-ordinator with Project Amigo.
“We have learned so much about this beautiful culture, its kind people and the hardship many of the indigenous people face on a daily basis,” she says.
“We have seen shy, insecure, barefooted, snotty-nosed eight-year-olds from the migrant camps, with no way out of the continuous cycle of poverty, develop into confident students, excited to have finished high school and enrolled in university—something which is unheard of in this culture. We have met many grateful parents, proud of having their child as the first one in their family continuing beyond primary school.”
Darrel sees evidence of the value of the program in the success of some of its graduates. “The village of Cofridia has had two mayors, who both are lawyers, who have come through the program,” he says.
Another example of the program’s success is a young man who completed university and now works for an export company. “I asked him, ‘What would have become of you if it had not been for Project Amigo?’ He said, ‘I would be working in the sugar cane fields.’ ”
In addition to participating in volunteer workweeks, you can support Project Amigo by sponsoring individual students. Currently, more than 300 students are supported in this fashion, including 76 who have Canadian sponsors: 39 in elementary school, 11 in junior high, 12 in high school, 13 in university and one in technical school.
“Our goal is to increase the number of students sponsored by Canadians to 100 by the end of 2018,” Elly says.
It costs $135 to sponsor a student in elementary school and $765 for a junior/senior high student. With the cost to sponsor a university or technical school student $5,000 or more, it’s common for several individuals or Rotary clubs to combine their resources for those sponsorships.
Representatives of Project Amigo have a booth at the RI Convention in Toronto and are often in the House of Friendship at District conferences.
“Project Amigo has changed my life,” Elly says. “It has given me a better understanding of who I am as a person. It may change yours too.”