Members of three Minnesota churches travel to help indigenous tribe in Copper Canyon, Mexico
By Tina Snell, Staff Writer
Seventeen people traveled to Copper Canyon, Mexico in March to work on a school and orphanage for children belonging to the Tarahumara people. The travelers hailed from Staples, Alexandria and Lincoln.
“The Tarahumara are descendants of the Aztecs and the Indians from Southwestern America,” said Heather Sams, one of the adult leaders of the trip.
The group, which included Brian Sams, Heather’s husband, her son Elijah and a friend, Brian Nelson, went specifically to build onto a boarding school and orphanage. They left Minnesota March 23, driving to Copper Canyon in northern Mexico, and returned April 3.
The trip south included traveling through a spring snow storm in the middle of the country. Most of the travelers were in a 15-passenger van, hauling a trailer with all their supplies, tools and donations from their respective congregations. Four people followed in another van and two people flew.
“We brought down lots of clothing, meal packs from ‘Feed My Starving Children,’ books, Bibles and toys,” said Heather.
The building the group replaced was originally constructed just four years ago for 30 children. It now holds about 100, crammed two to a bed, or more.
The orphanage complex includes the dormitory, a kitchen, bath and four schools. It was built over a 10-year span by Tomas Bencomo, a minister in Juarez, Mexico.
“When Bencomo realized the Tarahumara people were starving, and may become extinct (there are approximately 50,000 people living in the area), he spread the word, set up a fund, built the school and orphanage and set up food distribution for them,” said Brian.
The Sams have traveled to the area several times in the past for mission trips. They have worked at the food distribution center set up by Bencomo. This center provides nutritious food and educational opportunities for the Tarahumara children. Many of the kids do have homes to return to each day, but many are orphans who live on site.
“The children are sent home with food for their families,” said Heather. “Tarahumara Ministries feeds more than 800 families, the money coming from people in the United States, Mexico and Canada. There are also weekly distributions of food to the families.”
During a trip in 2012, Heather took a side trip to the orphanage in Copper Canyon. When she returned, she told her husband about the site and that it really needed their help.
Both Brians visited the orphanage in May 2012 to ascertain what was needed. The adobe used on the buildings had deteriorated, much having to do with the rainy seasons. What they found were buildings in disrepair, so they drew up plans for a new construction, approved by Bencomo.
They were also very aware that the road to the orphanage was extremely primitive, through rough terrain, and the logistics of bringing in supplies would be daunting.
In December 2012, they returned to coordinate the project. They took measurements, made lists of what materials and tools were needed and returned to Minnesota to get a crew together, raise funds and gather supplies.
They also spent long hours creating the architectural plans for the building.
Three churches became involved in the project: Alexandria Covenant Church, Staples Christian Alliance Church and the Lincoln Evangelical Free Church.
“Some of the families had been to Mexico before, but some of the children who came along had never left the area,” said Heather. “It was a very new and exciting experience.”
Brian Sams coordinated the purchase and delivery of 40-foot pieces of steel and the concrete block for the building. He hired a truck to haul the materials through the mountains and around hair-pin turns.
“To get around those turns, the driver would inch forward, then back up, then inch forward again several times to make it around many of them,” said Nelson.
The men in the group did most of the construction of the new school and dorm building. They started with the first floor of a two-story addition, increasing the size by approximately 1,200 square feet. It was built right around the old building.
On their next trip, the plans are to finish the second floor. Then during a subsequent trip, the group will tear down the second floor of the neighboring building. They will return two more times to replace that section of the orphanage.
While the guys were working on the dorms, the girls on the trip worked on the existing classrooms. They cleaned them up, painted and added colorful pictures to the walls, with the help of the children living there.
“We scraped and cleaned up the donated desks, repairing those that needed it,” said Heather. “We found an old bookshelf that we also repaired, then cleaned up the books which were piled in a corner.”
“The kids really dug in and worked hard during the week,” said Heather. “In spite of large spiders, no flush toilets, no hot water and other discomforts, each one said they would like to return.”
Also given to the children and their families were bags consisting of first aid items, sox and underwear and toiletries. The group hiked two hours to one village, then trucked to another for distribution.
The food the group ate was simple, although a special cook was brought in just for them. Meals included lots of chicken and “a red meat.” There were eggs for breakfast, along with beans. There were beans, tortillas, red sauce and soups with potatoes and carrots for the other meals,” said Brian Sams. “Also, some very watered-down oatmeal.”
He said they were all so hungry from their labors each day, they ate everything with relish.
For more information about how to help the Tamahumara people in Copper Canyon, contact Brian or Heather Sams at [email protected]