Sometimes in order to understand how good we have it in this country you need to get away.
Last week I travelled to Mexico to build houses for the poor in the dusty hills of Tecate, Mexico. It was no Club Med – in fact it was called “Club Dust” and we built houses for poor families that were living in houses made from loading skids stuffed with cardboard. We take a lot for granted in America.
Club Dust was founded by Ray Meltvedt, a Californian “bro” who works by day as a Senior VP for Landsberg, a national packaging company, but is a missionary in his soul by calling at all other times. Ray and his volunteers cross the border every month to serve God’s people in need. I was introduced to Ray by our mutual friend Jim Killoran, Executive Director of Westchester Habitat for Humanity. It is a chance to put your faith into action and lift your mind, body and spirit while measurably improving the lives of people in need. It is the best type of physical and spiritual exercise.
This years trip was my fifth pilgrimage to Tecate. I have gone at various times with each of my family members. This year’s trip was with my daughter Marielle and her best friend Cara, who share an apartment in Manhattan. It is an eye-opening trip on every occasion, but especially for those who are there for their first time like Marielle and Cara. Perspective is a wonderful thing to share.
Ray and the Club Dust group are mostly from California. Ray is not over-the-top on the religious aspect of his mission, but it is there – he is pretty “chill” about it. Last trip he met me at the bus at the San Diego Airport that took us over the border and said “Now church can start. I am not one to sit in a church and listen to sermons. Faith means nothing unless you put it into action”. A church does not need walls.
This trip we built 3 homes in 3 days. Simple houses about the size of a Westchester garage. The house Marielle and I worked on was for Guadalope, her husband Uriel and their adorable 3 year old son Daniel. Uriel makes $56 per week working in a factory. We also got some help from some local Mexican guys – Carlos, Javier, Ismail, and Jose- who each got paid about $25 per day to help build the houses. Club Dust also delivered over 3,000 pounds of food including rice, beans, carrots and other provisions to the people of the village. Another bi-annual tradition is the distribution of bicycles to kids who show a good report card. Club Dust also does some “social entrepreneurship” by bringing material to the women in town to make handbags to support themselves. Club Dust does good work.
Obviously this year’s trip was set against the backdrop of Trump’s talk of building a wall to enforce our border with Mexico. However, there was no political agenda to this trip and no politics were discussed. It was just people helping people like Ray and his friends have done since starting Club Dust when he was 18 and as he has done for 37 years. Ray heard a calling to help his neighbors in Mexico and he has never stopped.
Over the sporadic 20 years I have been going to Club Dust, I have noticed changes in Mexico. The “maquiladora”, the foreign factories set up across the border in Mexico, have started to spawn a new middle class living in Mexico. NAFTA has had some effect. As we drive from the border through Tijuana and out to Tecate to the work site you can see that factories large and small have popped up over the years. Tijuana is booming now with cranes everywhere. Ray pointed out the largest Hyundai plant in the world that provides jobs and a chance at a steady income to the people of Mexico. A little further out pre-fabricated townhouses have been built to house the factory workers. Grocery stores and gas stations have become strip malls and have been joined by the most American of exports – the movie multiplex. Further out the development quickly fades as growth gives way to dusty hills of desolation and poverty. Light industry like brick yards, cow farms and junk yards share the landscape with shanty towns of sub-standard housing. The blight is broken up by the brightly painted Club Dust houses that dot the hillsides. Club Dust has built over 750 of them over the years.
Trump wants to build a wall to stop the Mexican people from coming here. A wall will not stop them from seeking opportunity and a better life. Helping Mexico become a land of opportunity seems to be money better spent.
My daughter Marielle and Cara bonded with Guadalope and Daniel while helping to build their new house behind their old house. They sheetrocked the interior of the new house together – the kitchen and the room that would be Daniel’s bedroom. I helped Uriel cut down the old outhouse out back to make way for the new house. A few years ago a guy named Ken suggested that a house is not a home without some furniture so Ken and a crew make bunk beds for the kids and kitchen tables and benches for the families. As electricity has become more available in the area, the houses have been wired for electricity and lights.
Dedication days are always emotional. Guadalupe and Uriel fought back tears as they gave thanks to their new friends from America. Marielle and Cara welled-up in the outpouring of emotion. Daniel ran into his bedroom and jumped on the lower bed of his new bunk bed – his first bed all his own. Maybe someday he’ll share the room with a baby brother or sister but for now it is all his. He popped up and ran over to the light switch marveling at the light going on and off with a flick of the switch with a big smile each time he did it.
On July 23rd, my friend Ray Meltvedt is coming to New York. Besides being a corporate exec, father and founder of Club Dust, Ray has taken up open water swimming. He has swam from the California coast to Catalina Island and back. He has done 25 mile open water swims. He is coming to New York to take a relatively short mile and a half swim. Ray is swimming around the Statute of Liberty and I will be there to cheer him on.
Some people in America take our freedoms for granted. Others pay lip service to our freedoms. Others show their appreciation for our freedoms by exporting the power of our American freedoms to others. Ray has taken the plunge and put words into action.
On the morning of July 23rd, Lady Liberty will be smiling down on Ray as he swims around her. On a dusty hill in Mexico 3,000 miles away, Daniel will be waking up and turning the lights on in his new bedroom. Guadalupe and Uriel will make breakfast for Daniel in their new kitchen. Marielle and Cara will probably just be getting up in their Manhattan apartment and heading out to brunch. Others will be heading off to church to hear a sermon. I’ll be watching Ray and reflecting on a “church” I visited with no walls where I learned many lessons.