[Episcopal News Service – Tijuana, Mexico] Routine and order. That’s the rule of life at Vida Joven de Mexico, an orphanage here where 24 abandoned Mexican children ages 2 to 18 live.
The home is located near a maximum-security men’s prison, where in the 1970s, a makeshift “village” of poor women and children emerged to live in proximity with the men. It was dangerous; children witnessed violence, assassinations, drug trafficking and abuse.
In 1996, Episcopalians from Los Angeles learned of the village and responded with Vida Joven, which remains in its original 2,000-square-foot concrete building with a 25-child capacity.
“We were meant to rescue kids from danger. We never intended to be a place for kids to grow up,” said Sylvia Laborin, Vida Joven’s founding director, who will retire later this year after 22 years.
In Mexico, abandoned children become wards of the state and are sent to shelters or orphanages, or end up living on the streets. Eighty percent of the children who land at Vida Joven come through social service agencies; 90 percent of them have at least one living parent, but all have been either surrendered or abandoned, said Beth Beall, executive director of Vida Joven in the United States.
Tijuana, which borders San Diego, is one of the most dangerous cities on the planet. With a population of 1.7 million, the city’s homicide rate reached 2,500 in 2018. An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 children are in state custody in Baja California, the Mexican state on the Baja California Peninsula, where Tijuana is the largest city.
Drug trafficking is largely responsible for the violence, and many of the abandoned children’s parents suffer from drug addiction. For example, four siblings landed at Vida Joven after a neighbor saw the oldest one, a 7-year-old girl, searching for food in the garbage. Both of the parents were on drugs.
“We have more needs right now, and I don’t mean food or supplies or whatever,” said Laborin. “It’s the needs of the children. They are lost … there’s a rootlessness.”
Twenty years ago, the children were “very obedient and nice”; today, however, Laborin said, “they are angry with their families, with everything.”
Family is important in Latin culture. It’s customary for children to remain with their families, so living apart from them can be tough for the children, especially teenagers.
“Some have run away to reunite with family, and it hasn’t worked out well,” Laborin said.
Now an institution of the Diocese of San Diego and an established U.S. nonprofit organization, Vida Joven operates on a $320,000 annual budget, with $220,000 funding operations in Tijuana. It costs about $8,000 per child, most of which goes to staff salaries, said Beall.
Vida Joven functions with 15 round-the-clock staff members – including a psychologist and a social worker – none of whom live onsite. The children sleep in dormitories: infants and toddlers together in one room; older boys and girls in separate dorms, each dorm equipped with one bathroom. The beds are neatly made, clothing stacked in piles in the closet. There’s an administrative office, a space dedicated to study, a kitchen and a dining area, which also serves as common space for homework.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, following a meal of refried beans, guacamole and tortillas, the children dutifully opened their notebooks and began their homework.
In modern Mexico, it’s impossible to find a job as a cashier without an education, something Vida Joven’s leadership and supporters emphasize. Mexico provides free public school education, but it costs about $100 to buy the required uniforms to start kindergarten, while the average worker in Tijuana earns $4 per day, Beall said.
Many of the children’s parents have little to no education beyond primary school. In the past, students could leave school after sixth grade; today the government mandates a 12th-grade education. However, as Vida Joven’s leadership has found, capacity exceeds space by some 10,000 students.
Vida Joven’s secondary education-aged students attend private school for $200 a month.
“We are fortunate we have donors who really get it and fund education,” said Beall.
In recent years, Vida Joven has received support not just from U.S. donors, but from people in Tijuana who’ve come to support the orphanage, as well.
“This is what salvation looks like – people are rescuing and saving these kids’ lives,” said Beall. “This is a place of healing. Not all of the stories have happy endings, but we do know that if they were not here, they’d be dead or in the sex trade.”
Beall gestures to a mosaic in the courtyard. “These kids have been shattered to pieces. We give them the opportunity to create something better,” she said. “We are here to love, protect and educate.”
Before Laborin became Vida Joven’s director, she worked as an esthetician. After her husband died and her children married, she closed her shop. She discovered that “not doing anything” was terrible. Then, she saw a job advertisement for Vida Joven. She was one of 100 applicants and five selected for interviews.
“I saw this place and it was filthy,” she said. “I thought, if they hire me, I’ll stay for a little while.”
One of the first things Laborin did was clean up the building. It was something she could control because, even with order and routine, no two days are the same. Twenty-two years ago, when the first children arrived, Laborin expected their belongings to follow. They didn’t; they arrived only with the clothes on their backs.
“The need, really, I was overwhelmed totally,” she said.
For the first few years, Laborin admits she felt anger toward the children’s parents for abandoning them, until one day a friend told her she had to let go of her anger and put herself in their shoes. After that, she said, she let it go but admits to this day that sometimes, “I still kinda don’t get it.”
One of the most important things, though, she said, is that her eyes were opened to humanity and people’s unseen needs.
“We live in a little bubble; we don’t see,” said Laborin. “I didn’t even know the needs.”
– Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.