Good works in Mexican village multiply like 'fishes and loaves'

.- Five little girls were carefully dividing up a portion of pistachio nuts, when Gina Gonzalez-Inglett and Sister Luz Moreno, CSB, pulled into the gas station in Matehuala, San Luis Potosí, México. Inglett, a photographer, was returning to the states after an excursion to photograph Mexican scenery in 2002, and while her friend was engaged at the station’s office, decided to snap a quick photo of the children. It was a picture that would change her life and those of the residents of nearby Rancho Nuevo, the girls’ impoverished village.

Hearing the click of the camera, the youngest stepped forward and extended her hand, palm up. Instead of money, Inglett offered the girl and her companions some mints and struck up a conversation. “If you’re from America,” said one of the girls, “do you know Barbie?” Tongue in cheek, Inglett assured them that not only did she know that American doll icon, she lived next door to her.

Before she knew it, Inglett had promised she would bring all five girls Barbie dolls, planning to send them via Sister Luz the following month. As they drove on, Sister Luz pointed out to her, “You can’t just make promises and not complete them.” The children, she explained, were expecting to see Inglett return with the dolls herself.

Once home, Inglett realized that this was definitely something she needed to do, but decided to use it as a teaching moment for her nieces and nephews as well. She began calling them, asking each for a toy they no longer played with or a pair of shoes they didn’t wear. “And before I knew it,” she adds, “I had a truckload of stuff and I had five Barbies.”

A month later she and Sister Luz returned to the Matehuala gas station, where an inquiry to the station attendant brought forth that five little girls had been showing up there daily looking for an American woman. A man who knew the area was enlisted to hop in Inglett’s pick-up and direct them to Rancho Nuevo and the girls’ home, where they were greeted by a woman peeking shyly around the curtain that served as the little adobe dwelling’s front door.

The girls, Inglett learned, were the daughters and nieces of the woman, who quickly dispatched her little boy to go fetch them. Twenty minutes later a dust cloud appeared on the horizon as the girls (accompanied by about 20 playmates) madly dashed towards the house and their long-awaited visitor.

Fortunately, Inglett had filled her truck with shoes, toys and school supplies, so there was something to give each of the eager children. Declining the mother’s gracious offering of what little food she had, the two then took off, with Inglett promising that she would visit them again.

“I guess that was the day that really changed my life,” Inglett recalls, “because I really at that point understood what Mother Teresa was talking about — feeding the poor and just being a missionary.” She was also glad she had been able to put across the point to her well-off nieces and nephews that “it doesn’t take much to survive in this world and your materialistic objects aren’t a ‘need.’”

Inglett did indeed return for more visits to Rancho Nuevo with Sister Luz, and each time more children would show up. Finally, she realized additional help was needed and turned to friends who had previously invited her to be part of their women’s Reflections group at St. Pius X Parish. (Inglett is actually a parishioner these days at Sacred Heart Church in Rockport.) The resulting Reflections Project Fishes and Loaves took its name from the Gospel reading the week of her first visit to the children.

Forming the project group’s core, in addition to Inglett and Sister Luz, are Kathy Ornes, Nora Sierra, Claire McCormick and Veronica Gomez, aided by male volunteer and project cook, E.J. Eiteljorge. Additional people make the summer trips, and Inglett’s husband, Jim, prepares the truck and repairs donated toys for the journey.

Twice a year now, Reflections Project Fishes and Loaves, loaded with donated clothing and other items, visits Rancho Nuevo, bringing blankets in the wintertime and setting up a Vacation Bible School during the summer that serves 150 children. With the donation of bilingual books, they have been able to set up “Under the Tree Learning Centers” in four homes, where the children attend an after school type program. This has grown to around 20 children per center.

“The kids have come to the point now,” says Inglett, “where they are teaching their fathers and mothers how to read and write.” The children, she adds, are so eager for learning supplies that they do not mind if the crayons are broken or the paper they are given has already been used on one side. “These kids don’t ask for iPods,” she notes. “They ask for school supplies or a backpack or a pair of shoes.”

Few go beyond fifth grade in school, as purchasing a uniform is then required and most are too poor to buy them. Many of the families there live in primitive conditions, in homes with dirt floors and no running water. Some have electricity, others do not. Outdoor kitchens with wood fires for cooking are common. In every single dwelling, however, there is a picture of either Our Lady or the Sacred Heart.

The group also makes home visits, being sure to include newborns and shut-ins, and students at St. Benedict School in San Antonio have begun a related project of knitting baby blankets. Many of the new mothers in Rancho Nuevo are still children themselves, unwed mothers with no money to buy anything for their newborns, so the blankets are considered a precious gift.

Sister Luz sets up women’s pláticas based on Bible study, which lead to discussions on women’s issues, and Fishes and Loaves plans activities to keep the children occupied during this. The number of women attending has expanded to 75, including some from neighboring villages.

San Antonio Prayer Partners have been paired with the village women, and Fishes and Loaves is helping them set up a cooperative to sell their products. Given ceramic tiles to decorate with crayons and markers, the women’s creative output was so prodigious they quickly ran out of tiles and their artwork will be sold at a Paula D’Arcy conference next year.

“I want someone to know I exist; I want someone to know that I matter,” the women told Inglett regarding the art project. At present, she notes, the women have little in their lives, with no education or chance of leaving their impoverished surroundings.

Fishes and Loaves hopes to help the village establish a community center where a nutrition program could be implemented, with the women receiving a stipend for cooking several hot meals a week for the children. They have already started a scholarship program for the youngsters.

From Inglett’s original trip to bring the promised Barbies, projects to assist the people of Rancho Nuevo have multiplied like the Gospel’s fishes and loaves. “I feel like the Holy Spirit guides us in directions without us even knowing,” says Inglett, “and before we know it, we’re there.”

Printed with permission from Today's Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Antonio.

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