November 2011
Mission: The Church's Heartbeat

Changing the Lives of Mexico’s Poorest

In a city where 80,000 children do not attend school and 6,000 children live on the street, Tijuana’s Dorcas House, a ministry of the Diocese of San Diego, houses, feeds, educates, and loves the most ostracized of this marginal population: the children whose parents are in prison.

During the Episcopal Church’s 2009 General Convention, Terri Mathes, then president of Dorcas House, spent valuable networking hours with representatives from Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD).

Instead of merely caring for the casualties of Tijuana’s violence and poverty, Mathes wanted to go to the root of the problem and break the cycle that lands many children in orphanages, or in prison with their parents. Without resources and at least one parent in prison, most of these children ended up on the streets. Dorcas House is the only foster home in Tijuana that accepts these children.

“The goal was to leverage Episcopal Relief & Development’s extensive experience in effecting international social change to create real change for the people connected to Dorcas House,” said Mathes.

These conversations laid the groundwork for innovative collaboration that is now beginning to take shape in our diocese.

Under the capable, loving guidance of Tijuana native Sylvia Laborin, Dorcas House children receive shelter, three warm meals a day, medical attention, psychological therapy and education. Dorcas House staff members ensure that every single child is enrolled in school, and they provide after-school tutoring sessions.

The children received such high marks that teachers began sending other school children to the foster home for help with their homework.

Dorcas House doesn’t stop there. They have organized and hosted parenting classes for people who don’t have the skills or knowledge to care for their children, rehabilitating them as parents so that families can be reunited.

This success demonstrated that Dorcas House had the capability to reach people in the community, hold classes, teach skills and show results. These are all the ingredients necessary to build a successful microcredit program.

Enter La Maestra Community Health Centers, an award winning non-profit in San Diego that provides microcredit loans to low-income women with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Very simply, microcredit is tiny self-employment business loans made to the world’s poorest people, especially to women. These business loans usually start at $55, and when the first loan has been fully paid, there is an opportunity to borrow more. The borrowers are required to invest the money immediately in an income-generating activity.

Strict qualifications must be met before a person is admitted to the lending program. Once admitted, regular attendance, punctual payments, and inscrutable records are a must.

Groups of five women from the same neighborhood form a group and hold each other accountable for repaying their loans. All members contribute to the group credit rating, which is tainted by late payments, making the whole group less eligible for future loans. If one woman has to miss a meeting, she must send her payment with another group member.

The weekly meetings, which last about an hour, also provide the women a chance to discuss issues, socialize, and become friends. They build a community among themselves and share stories about their business ventures, often problem-solving with one another and helping each other through difficulty.

Most women report that the thing they like best about the program is not the money; it’s the friendships and their newfound sense of self-respect. They say things like, “My husband respects me more,” or “My children ask my opinion,” or “I am somebody now.”

The microcredit program gained traction as churches began sponsoring people within the geographic bounds of our diocese. The idea to take La Maestra’s proven microcredit program to Tijuana where it could reach untapped, capable entrepreneurial spirits was a logical next step. Using the facilities and staff of Dorcas House, La Maestra could start a microcredit group in Tijuana.

Episcopal Relief and Development  
Episcopal Relief & Development supports unique local, long-term initiatives that address poverty, hunger, disease, economic development and disaster response. What better organization to head the new microcredit program at Dorcas House?

In August 2010, the Matheses met with a representative of Episcopal Relief & Development, the Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Western Mexico, the director and board of Dorcas House, and the director of La Maestra Microcredit Program to discuss the details of the program and hammer out the proposal to Episcopal Relief & Development for seed money.

“This innovative partnership is the kind of thing Episcopal Relief and Development stands for,” said Karla Avila, representative of Episcopal Relief & Development. “Long-term, sustainable change begins with programs like this. A tiny loan can represent a life-changing opportunity for women and their families.”

Just this summer, Episcopal Relief & Development awarded the grant for the start of the microcredit program and trainings for the staff of Dorcas House have been underway ever since. The training to run the program is extensive and continues even as the first loans were made.

“The training for the program is still in progress,” said staff psychologist at Dorcas House, Victor Esparza. “We feel confident that this microcredit program will open new doors for those who are dedicated to making a better life.”

Twelve loans for $55 each were administered the last week of August, officially commencing this innovative partnership involving the Diocese of San Diego, Episcopal Relief & Development, and Dorcas House.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Bishop Mathes, “about the possibility of real change coming out of our tiny foster home in Tijuana. If we can change just one life, we will have succeeded, but it is my hope that we change an entire community and from there, who knows? Maybe we can change the world.”  

Hannah Wilder is the director of communications for the Diocese of San Diego.

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This article is part of the November 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Mission: The Church's Heartbeat