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Philanthropy Crosses The Border

Gil Gillenwater, one of the founders of the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundatio...

Photo by Michel Marizco

Above: Gil Gillenwater, one of the founders of the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation's project in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mex.


Along the U.S.-Mexico border, charity can run deeply. In Arizona, one group has been quietly building communities for Sonora’s poor.

AGUA PRIETA, Sonora, Mex. – Along the U.S.-Mexico border, charity can run deeply. Some groups focus on immigration and all its politics. Others, on poverty. In Arizona, one group has been quietly building communities for Sonora’s poor. Their goal is usually to encourage self-sustaining projects to help those in need. But this winter, it’s become about giving.

The sky was ashen grey over the city of Agua Prieta on a recent Sunday morning. The clouds threatened to bring in snow and a bitter wind blew dust along the dirt streets of the border town. Still a throng of people waited in line, some 4,000, standing quietly, huddled against the cold.

These are among the poorest of people who live on the Mexican border. Usually Delfina Rivas and her family can barely make it on her husband’s $12-a-day job in a factory.

"It's hard, here right now," she said.

It’s a common story in this country where half the population lives in poverty. This month, they didn’t have enough to pay for the propane to heat the water in their home. Or to cook.

At the other end of the line of people, a shout as Michael Martindale calls for more goods. "More chickens! We got a little tuna, we got flour, we got oil. We got pasta, we got cereal. We got some hygienic stuff."

Martindale has been with the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation for a quarter century, The organization has been focused on trying to help people here by building homes and adding infrastructure. Volunteers will help with scholarships to college, jobs, even adoptions.

"If you look around this community, Vecinos, we built 42 houses, a day care center, an adult education center, a learning center and people are encouraged to take part in the community and give back in the community," he said as he worked.

In fact, it was the same people who live here at this Rancho Feliz-built community, Vecinos, who handed out tickets to 1,000 families throughout Agua Prieta’s poorest streets.

Photo by Michel Marizco

Volunteers loaded 1,000 bags with enough groceries to feed a family of four for a week at the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation's project in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mex.

Today’s gift giving is organized like the factory floors of the maquiladoras most of these folks would aspire to work in. Volunteers walk in a giant circle, giant plastic bag in their outstretched hands as others fill them with the goods. Then the bags are given out to the waiting ticket holders. Enough food for a smart cook to feed her family for a week.

Gil Gillenwater, one of the founders of Rancho Feliz, said, "In all truthfulness, I am the most selfish man on planet Earth. This feeds my soul. This makes me so joyful, so happy, so I do it as much as I can because I’m selfish. I don’t believe in altruism. There’s no such animal.”

Nayeli Ruiz doesn’t agree. She is more than grateful to Rancho Feliz. A young woman in her early 20s with a sparkling smile and exuberance, she can’t stand still for very long. She grew up here in Agua Prieta. Her mother took her to a Rancho Feliz orphanage; she could no longer afford to care for her. Now she’s in college in Monterrey thanks to financial help from Rancho Feliz. Now, she’s paying her own way through a degree.

"You can imagine. Not only receiving money. Not only receiving things. I received more than that. My soul, everything inside of me changed," Ruiz said.

Within three hours, the bags of food were gone, the piles of rice and boxes of chickens and cooking oil and piles of blankets, disappeared. The last of the needy here winding their way back down the dirt street. Grandmothers pushed in their wheelchairs, arms piled high with the goods.

Gillenwater’s mother, Bettie Johnson, is helping to clean up.

“I get very emotional about this food and blankets being given out to people. It’s wonderful. This is Christmas spirit, isn’t it?" she said.

Border Giving In Agua Prieta

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