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July 30, 2013 > Making the world a better place, one home at a time

Making the world a better place, one home at a time

Submitted By Michael Shi

Who knew that building houses could be... enlightening? I certainly didn't, but after traveling to Mexico and helping to build a house with my bare hands, I realized that it was an extremely insightful and enriching experience. On June 21 - 26, with 22 other volunteers - including students from Fremont, San Ramon, and San Jose area schools and their parents, I journeyed to Tijuana, Mexico, to build a home for a needy family. The trip was organized by DOXA, a non-profit organization that has built over 1,000 homes in the Tijuana area. Every member of our group greatly enjoyed the trip, and many of us are planning to return to build another house together. For me, it was definitely an experience of a lifetime: it changed how I viewed myself and the world around me, and it was so much fun!

Our preparation for the trip kicked off at the Olive Children Foundation in Fremont two months before the trip. At our first meeting, most of us were complete strangers. As I looked around the room, there were people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, but none of them looked like an experienced construction worker. Despite the doubts I might have had then, there was no doubt that, many weeks later, we stood united in our pride and satisfaction as we appraised the completed house that stood before us. Through teamwork, lots of planning, perseverance, and buckets of sweat, we managed to build the house in three days. Our efforts were successful largely due to the support and guidance of DOXA representative, Dale, an amazing mentor who brought our inexperienced construction team up to speed, and left us in awe of his wisdom and hammering skills. His wife, Liz, provided motherly support to our group while interacting flawlessly with the local population.

Before we had even started the trip, several weeks of planning and fundraising was necessary, as each family needed to raise about $1000 to cover building materials and costs of the trip. Several of us held a car wash in Fremont to raise funds, while others went door-to-door or asked friends and relatives for donations. The car wash received strong support from the community and was a great success. It was also a fun experience and a great bonding time for all participants. We started our journey on Friday, June 21, 2013.

The first part of the trip was an eight-hour drive from the Bay Area to San Diego. Some families carpooled; friendships were forged during the long car ride. We spent the night in San Diego. The next day, we crossed the border and got our first look at Tijuana, Mexico. We surveyed the job site and met the family who would receive the house. Although the house we were building was small, it was still an improvement for the family of three generations. To save time, the foundation had been poured prior to our arrival.

Our home for the next few days was orphanage Casa Hogar de los Ninos in Tijuana. Conditions at the orphanage were great, and students from our group mingled and played games with other volunteer groups and residents of the orphanage.

On June 23, we started building. Using hammers, nails, saws, and a few other tools, we cut boards and planks and nailed them together. Split into separate teams, volunteers constructed the framework for walls and, by the end of the first day, frames were set into place.

The second day of building seemed much more productive, as all of us drastically improved our construction skills. We added painted walls to the framework, and raised rafters. The volunteers also befriended Antonio, a friendly and energetic 13-year-old son of the local family who would receive the house. Antonio always wore a big smile, but like many of the children in the neighborhood, he didn't have an opportunity to go to school.

The final day consisted of adding materials to the ceiling, finishing walls, and painting white trim. I was proud to call myself a member of the "roof gang" (pronounced "ruff gang" in fond and teasing imitation of the way Dale pronounced it), a collection of brave souls who dared to venture onto the roof. The finished product was a beautiful shade of sky blue, and the house delighted both the family and volunteers. We handed the key to the family in a ritual filled with laughter and smiles, as well as barely held-back tears. At that moment, the house became a home. At that moment, I felt tremendously proud - proud of the accomplishment we had, proud of myself having done something that would change the life of others. Saying farewell to Antonio and his family was difficult. To this day, their faces of genuine happiness are still vivid in my brain.

I'm sure that every single one of us learned something valuable from our trip to Mexico, something that we'll hopefully keep for the rest of our lives. I know that I miss the experience already, and I can't wait to return for another round. Who wouldn't want to have a great time making friends and learning things in a new environment, all the while making the world a better place, one home at a time?

Michael Shi is a sophomore at Dougherty Valley High School in San Ramon.

Learn more about DOXA at

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