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Rochester youth raise money for Mexican border town

Unitarian Universalist youth spend a night in tents to raise money.
By Donald E. Skinner

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tent city

As part of a fundraising effort, youth from First Unitarian Church in Rochester, N.Y., create a tent city to call attention to the poverty in Mexican border towns. (Michael T. Rehbaum)

A trip to the border city of Matamoros, Mexico, last year made a lasting impression on youth of First Unitarian Church of Rochester, N.Y. They came home inspired to help the residents of Matamoros, thousands of whom work for low wages in factories along the border and live in flimsy cardboard and scrap lumber dwellings in communities—called colonias—that often lack adequate water and sewer systems, paved roads, and safe housing.

On April 5 more than 20 youth created their own colonia in the parking lot of the church. Using shipping pallets they fenced off a tent city and most of the youth spent the night in near-freezing temperatures. A farm worker family from Guatemala made beans and rice for the youth and helped them make tortillas.

They raised about $5,000 from friends, family, church members, and others who sponsored their night out in the cold. Tim Wilson, First Unitarian’s social justice coordinator, said the money will be sent to Matamoros to help expand a school in one of the colonias. The money will help build a trades building, where students will learn skills including electronics, sewing, and carpentry, allowing them to qualify for higher-paying jobs.

The trades building is expected to cost between $10,000 and $30,000, depending on how many courses it would accommodate, and the youth say they will continue to raise funds for it. A group will be returning to Matamoros in February. Wilson said the youth, in addition to raising money, want to have a small part, if possible, in actually building the facility.

Casey Asprooth-Jackson, a high school senior, is one of the youth who went to Mexico last year. He also participated in the First Unitarian colonia. He said he went because: “There’s a big disconnect between the American and Mexican cultures. Our luxurious and privileged society is having a negative effect on many Mexicans. My trip changed the way I think about Mexican culture.”

Members of First Unitarian have been making trips to Mexico for ten years, ever since Minister Emeritus the Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert organized a trip with the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York to illustrate the negative impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Six youth went on the church trip to Mexico last year. “They decided they couldn’t just come back and simply write about this on their college applications,” said Wilson. “They wanted to do more.” The youth developed a PowerPoint presentation about their experiences in Mexico, which they have given to school, civic, and church groups.

First Unitarian is a partner with the eight-member All Souls UU Church in Brownsville, Tex., on this project. All Souls member Georgianne Duarte is liaison to the group when it visits. “So many times people come here and simply give things, rather than connecting with people on an equal level,” she said. “I was impressed by the humbleness of these youth. They connected with the people in the colonia on a very personal level. This is a relationship that will continue. And the need is so great here.”

Contributions can be sent to First Unitarian Church at 220 Winton Rd. S., Rochester, NY 14610-2998.

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