This month, Highway to Mexico will deliver its 100th vehicle—plus vehicles #97-99 and 101-106

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Fire shuttle van will be the 100th vehicle to be delivered to Mazatlan through the Highway to Mexico program since 2002

Later this week, Rotarians from our District will arrive in Mazatlan with what has been designated as the 100th vehicle to be delivered to the city and the Mexican state of Sinaloa since Highway to Mexico began in 2002 with a single school bus filled with wheelchairs. 

Vehicle number 100—a former hotel shuttle that has been repurposed to become a fire support shuttle—is one of 10 vehicles in this year’s convoy, which left Grande Prairie on March 29.

“I think it an incredible achievement to keep this project sustainable and to keep people involved and to be able to raise the funds we require to do this, year after year,” says Felix Seiler (Rotary Club of Grande Prairie-Swan City), who is making his 12th or 13th trip to Mexico.

This year’s convoy, which was described in a recent article by Edmonton Journal columnist Nick Lees, and also in an interview on CBC’s Radio Active, includes two fire trucks, four ambulances, three school buses and the fire support shuttle, bringing the total number of vehicles delivered since the program began to 106.

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Loading wheelchairs from Alberta Health Services

Eighty-five per cent of the vehicles delivered by Highway to Mexico are still in service. 

Knowing that the residents of this part of Mexico have better access to emergency transportation and fire protection because of this program is a source of pride for the Rotarians who have been part of Highway to Mexico over the years.

“You can’t miss it. You see the Rotary name on these vehicles whenever they pass by,” Felix says.

“You get immediate gratification when you realize each of these vehicles will be in use for years to come.” 

The Highway to Mexico was recognized with the Gilbert Paterson Award for International Service during the District changeover event on June 11, 2018.

Several awards for international, community and youth services will be presented at this year’s changeover event on Thursday, June 27, at the Chateau Louis Hotel in Edmonton. The deadline for submitting entries for the 2018-2019 awards is May 15.

The vehicles come from various sources. The fire shuttle vehicle was donated by the hotel where it formerly served as a hotel shuttle. The two fire trucks were purchased at auctions by Rotary clubs. 

IMG_1292Two ambulances were part of eight obtained from Alberta Health Services, while another was donated by an oilfield ambulance service. The school buses were purchased from school systems through sealed bids. Other vehicles were purchased by individuals in order to donate them to the project.

Once they obtain vehicles, Rotary clubs arrange to have them refurbished. In addition to the Swan City club, other clubs involved in this year’s Highway to Mexico include the Rotary Clubs of Grande Prairie, Grande Prairie After Five, Peace River, Edson and Edmonton Riverview.

Several other clubs have participated in the project in previous years.

Getting these vehicles to Mexico required a great deal of organization, which began long before they left Grande Prairie.

“It is almost like on ongoing project,” Felix says. “We are already in the process of collecting vehicles for next year.  Six months out, we begin to do paperwork with our Mexican colleagues. It’s very time-consuming.”

Each of this year’s 20 drivers—two for each vehicle—received a detailed itinerary for the 5,000 km journey, identifying everything from the order in which the vehicles will travel (“All vehicles will travel in the same position in the convoy until we reach Mazatlan”) and speed at which they will travel (“The convoy should travel around 95-100 km per hour, depending on the slowest vehicle in the convoy”), to where the convoy will stop to refuel and where the drivers will sleep each night.

There is also advice on crossing the two borders they will encounter.

“Crossing the U.S. border is not as much of a challenge as it once was,” Felix says, explaining all the necessary paperwork is in place before the journey begins.

Entering Mexico at Nogales can be a different story. 

“Every year, it’s a new experience. Crossing the Mexican border can take from two to 14 hours,” Felix says.

“We usually have a pool (US$10 each) on how long it will take to cross the border. The winner is usually responsible for beer at a later date.”

Rotarians from Mexican clubs meet the convey each year at the border for the final segment of the journey.

Referring to these Rotarians, Felix says, “We have made lots of good personal friends over the years.”

While the Canadian Rotary clubs obtain the vehicles, Mexican Rotarians decide where they will go.

“They go through an application process. The organizations requesting vehicles need to prove that they have the resources necessary to keep the vehicles on the road.”

Once they reach Mazatlan, the Canadians will park the vehicles and head to their hotel in the Golden Zone, before participating in activities over the next few days organized by local Rotarians.

Then it will be time to fly home to begin preparations for the 2020 version of Highway to Mexico.

Project Amigo workweek: an opportunity to serve, learn and bond for past and future District Governors

After spending a week volunteering at Project Amigo with several Past District Governors and their spouses, Jim Ferguson (Rotary E-club of Canada One) feels he knows these former District 5370 leaders much better than before.

Jim Feguson with Kinder

Jim Ferguson with kindergarten-aged soccer players

“I hadn’t had much interaction with Past District Governors. I had seen them at District events but only knew them to say hi,” says Jim, who will serve as District 5370 governor in 2020-2021. “I thought of them as Rotary royalty for what they have accomplished in our District.”

“When you get together and actually have a chance to get to know them personally, it was a fantastic experience,” Jim says. “The PDGs are a great group of people.”

The idea of a workweek for District Governors has been percolating for several years, according to PDG Elly Contreras (Rotary E-club of Canada One), who now serves as Canadian Intermediary for the Project Amigo Canada Society (PACS). 

“My wish was to have more Rotarians, particularly my fellow governors, participate,” she says. “Several expressed interest, but it just didn’t happen.”

Plans made at District Conference in Fort McMurray

That is, nothing happened until the 2017 District Conference in Fort McMurray. 

“At the conference, there was discussion about why more clubs didn’t participate in Project Amigo,” says Frank Reitz (RC of Fort McMurray), who was District Governor at the time. “We talked about it, which led to us deciding to schedule a workweek for past District Governors.”

In addition to Jim and his wife Jocelyn, the team that went to Cofradia, Mexico, in mid-February, included  DGE Tracey Vavrek and her husband Vince, and seven PDGs and their spouses—Judy Brown (Ron), Elly Contreras (Ramiro), Terry Drader (Mary), Ross Tyson (Brenda), Jackie Hobal (Wayne), Betty Screpnek (George), and Frank Reitz (Barbara).

Elly, who has been visiting Project Amigo since 2008 organized the visit by the past and future District  Governors.

“I found right from the very moment we arrived that the week was very well-organized and action-packed. Elly had us on the move from morning to night,” Jim says.

“They were surprised by the wonderful accommodation with private bathrooms, the wonderful meals every day, the various activities planned for them, and most of all by the amazing structures Project Amigo has developed over the last 35 years,” Elly says.

PDG Judy Brown (Rotary E-club of Canada One) has an even longer history with Project Amigo than Elly as a longtime volunteer and as a member of the PACS board.

“I first heard about Project Amigo when Ted Rose and Susan Hill came to Edmonton and did a presentation for our Rotary club (Edmonton Riverview),” Judy says. “My late husband, Peter, and I spent our winter vacations in Manzanillo, which is only about one and half hours away from where Project Amigo is headquartered.”

“The next year, we visited with Ted and Susan at Project Amigo. Ted took us around the area to show us what they were doing. Peter and I went back pretty well every year from 2002 to 2010.”

“My husband, Ron Brown, and I have attended three workweeks since 2012,” Judy says. “We keep coming back because we are hooked on this great initiative—seeing first-hand what a difference we are making by enabling children to go to school.”

“For nearly 20 years, Rotarians from our District have participated in workweeks at Project Amigo during the winter months,” Elly says. 

Click here to learn how you can be part of a future Project Amigo workweek.

Each of the governors had his or her own reason for volunteering for this workweek. For Jim, it was an opportunity to be part of a service project in another country. 

“I haven’t been on an overseas service project before and this was a chance to participate in one,” Jim says, who also had a more personal connection to Project Amigo.

“Our E-club has a student we are supporting through Project Amigo, so I knew I would have a chance to meet her.”

Clubs and individuals can sponsor Project Amigo students: $135 a year for an elementary student, $795 for a secondary student and $5,280 for a post-secondary student (including accommodation at Casa Amigo). In addition, there are other non-sponsorship ways to support Project Amigo.

PDG Ross Tyson (RC of Edmonton Northeast) felt that volunteering with other past governors would be something special.

“We had talked about it for a long time and planned for the workweek for about a year,” he says. “The fellowship you gain from going with people you know is second to none because you spend 16 hours a day together.”

“I was pleasantly surprised by what the people with Project Amigo do,” Ross says. “I only thought about sponsoring students. I had not expected to see children mentoring each other in the homework club. After school, the older sponsored kids nurture and coach younger sponsored kids.”

Ross notes that to remain in the Project Amigo program the students must keep up with their studies. 

“They are required to maintain a certain average to stay in the program,” he says. “This is a sustainable aspect of Project Amigo, because it helps ensure that the sponsors’ money is well spent.”

The team spent its days visiting schools, meeting students and their parents, and becoming involved in activities with the children. 

“We were able to feel the positive impact of Project Amigo when we met the kids and their parents. These kids are having a positive experience—the opportunity for a better life,” says Frank

Tracey Vavrek Reading with student

DGE Tracey Vavrek reads with a Project Amigo student

“We met children who only experienced going to school (with) books and crayons because of the direct participant of Project Amigo and their supporters,” says DGE Tracey (RC of Grande Prairie After Five).

“We met teenagers who are advancing and actively participating in their schooling due to the financial support and gifts of tools like computers and books. We met young people who were on the road to becoming lawyers, nurses, hairstylists and more, because someone invested time and resources in them, believing in them,” she says.

Each team member brought an extra suitcase filled with colouring books, crayons, toothbrushes, clothing and other supplies, which they distributed to students at Project Amigo and to the children at a nearby camp for migrant workers.

The migrant workers bring their families with them when they come from other parts of

Ramiro Deliving Food bags at MIgrant Camp

Ramiro Contreras delivers a bag of food to a family in the migrant camp 

Mexico to work in sugar cane fields. At the camp, the team “witnessed poverty at a level I could only imagine,” says Tracey. “We saw homes that were small concrete facilities with dirt floors, with access to water in a common area outside of the homes. This area was used for dishwashing and washing clothes.”

 “This was an opportunity to experience a lifestyle that was so different than ours,” Frank says. “Inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre have it better than these families.”

Beside working with the children, the workweek was an opportunity to experience the culture of Mexico. 

They learned to make salsa and guacamole, joined a meeting of the Rotary Club of Coquimatlan, visited the La Campana archeological site, and toured a mescal distillery. 

The team even helped Frank and Barbara celebrate their 51st wedding anniversary.

For all the District Governors, past and future, the Project Amigo was a special experience. 

“It did bring us together in a way we weren’t before. We are a family of past governors, but thought the workweek, we came together in our understanding of the values of Rotary and the potential of Rotary,” Frank says. 

“The level of interaction was different than in the past. We all experienced something that was really amazing and that only comes from participation in a common experience,” he says.

“It was so great to share Project Amigo with our Rotary colleagues, to see the emotion they felt when interacting with the beautiful children that we are helping,” says Judy. “We experienced wonderful Rotary fellowship and got to know everyone better than before. It was truly an amazing week, never to be forgotten.”

Edmonton Rotarian revives and donates old ambulances to to Belize, Mexico and Africa

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Ambulances waiting to be refurbished by Alberta Honda

Some people collect coins. Others fill albums with postage stamps from around the world. But not Roman Bayrock (RC of Edmonton Riverview). He collects ambulances.

So far, he has obtained 11 of these life-saving vehicles, after they have been retired by Alberta Health Services. 

Once these ambulances are refurbished, they are designated for developing countries where the need for them is great.

Assisting people in this fashion gives Roman “a rush. It’s like winning the lottery. I feel great helping people,” he says.

Roman, who describes himself as “a bit of an opportunist, with a talent for bargain hunting,” purchased his first ambulance by chance, when he discovered it listed for sale on an auction site. 

“I figured that not too many people would be interested,” he recalls. “I wondered how cheaply I could buy it.”

 But first, he contacted the Belize Emergency Response Team.

“I called BERT and asked, ‘If I could find you an ambulance cheap, would you be interested?’ They were.”

That first ambulance was shipped to Belize in 2016.

Since then, two more ambulance have gone to Belize. One went to the village of Dangriga, in the Southern Health Region, and the other to Southern Emergency Service, which was started in the Southern Health Region by a former Spruce Grove resident.

This last ambulance was delivered to Belize with the assistance of the US Air Force, through the Denton Program, which is jointly administered by several US government departments and agencies.

“The Denton program offers shipment of ‘humanitarian assistance’ in the form of utility trucks, fire trucks, ambulances, etc., to locations in North American at virtually no charge when space is available,” Roman says.

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Sandra and Roman Bayrock 

At the end of August, Roman and his wife Sandra, who is also a member of Edmonton Riverview, drove the ambulance to the Malstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana. There the ambulance was loaded onto a C-5 Hercules transport for the flight to Belize.

Prior to departing for Montana, Roman held a media event at Alberta Honda in Edmonton, which stores and refurbishes the ambulances.

“Without Alberta Honda, we would not have a space to store these ambulances and no source for parts, tires and batteries,” Roman says.

Once Alberta Honda has refurbished the remaining ambulances, they will be shipped to other developing countries. Four will go to Belize, two to Africa and two to Mexico, as part of the Highway to Mexico program organized by the Rotary Club of  Grande Prairie-Swan City.

This convoy of ambulances, fire trucks and other vehicles will depart for Mazatlan on March 29. Members of the Edson Rotary Club, which is paying to refurbish this vehicle, will drive one ambulance on the two-week journey. Roman and Sandra will drive the second.

Two ambulances will be going to Southern Emergency Services Belize, two to the Believe in Belize Charity in Pacencia, and one each to Faith Prestige Hospital in Ghana and to Arms Across Africa for use in Uganda.

The organizations receiving ambulances are responsible for all costs associated with refurbishing and transportation of the vehicles.

Before the Riverview club releases vehicles to other groups, the potential recipients are required to complete a questionnaire developed by Dean Wood, the club’s International Services director. 

“The purpose of the questionnaire was to get the organizations to make a series of commitments and demonstrate they have the capacity to operate and maintain the vehicle to ensure they will provide a quality and sustainable service,” Dean says.

“We asked them to commit to provide services to all residents of the areas, without regard to their ability to pay,” he says. “We believe that making the service available to all reflects a core Rotary value.”

Finally, each organization was asked to demonstrate a partnership with a local Rotary club.

Volunteering with Project Amigo was a life-changing experience for former district governor

Migrant Camp

Children from a migrant camp

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.

Volunteers and Staff

Project Amigo staff and volunteers

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.”