(WNS) -- Amee Sonnier, a junior at the University of Georgia, wanted to manage a dairy farm after graduation. At least that was her plan until last summer.
After seeing how God used her and three other students to build 10 homes in an impoverished region of Juarez, Mexico, Sonnier said she is beginning to have her doubts about potential job satisfaction down on the farm.
Sonnier is part of a dedicated group of students that helped bring a fresh passion to a ministry struggling to convince volunteers it’s safe to work in a country plagued by drug-related violence and crime. Told they wouldn’t have enough volunteer construction teams to complete the summer’s planned projects, the students organized their own crews and raised the money to pay for their supplies.
Casas por Cristo, a ministry based in El Paso, Texas, has coordinated the construction of more than 4,000 single-family homes in Mexico and Guatemala in the last 17 years. College students make up a large portion of the organization’s volunteers. Construction projects take place throughout the year with crews taking just four days to finish one home.
Brittany Girle, Casas por Cristo communications coordinator, said students like Sonnier come for a one-time mission project but often leave with a passion for the ministry.
Justin Churchman, a freshman at the Florida Institute of Technology, said words can’t describe the fulfillment he gets from watching a family turn a house he helped build into a home. The 19-year-old already has built 20 of the simple two- and three-room houses.
Churchman first volunteered with Casas por Cristo with a group of students from his school. He was only 12. A year later, Churchman organized and led a volunteer crew of 30 as part of his Eagle Scout project. With help from his parents and his sister, who was working toward her Girl Scout Gold rank, Churchman raised the $5,000 needed to build the smaller of the two Casas por Cristo model homes.
After her second volunteer trip to Juarez, Sonnier was convinced apply for one of the ministry’s seven summer internships. Casas por Cristo interns work through the summer directing up to 10 different work crews to construct 10 houses in one of three regions, Juarez or Acuna, Mexico or Raimundo, Guatemala. Although the volunteer teams of 12-18 people don’t need any special training or skills before going to work, the interns get training in leadership and building skills before being assigned a crew. The interns and Casas por Cristo staff members travel with the crews to facilitate the construction projects.
Casas por Cristo selected last summer’s interns before its staff realized they would not have enough volunteer crews to keep the interns busy. Staff members had to tell Sonnier and the other interns their services were no longer needed.
“It was really devastating. We’ve never had to do anything like this before,” Girle said.
News of the atrocities committed by the drug cartels in Mexico has dampened volunteer support for Casas por Cristo. The ministry once was able to build 400 homes a year. Now, it only builds 140. The ministry no longer accepts applications from residents in Juarez because the wait to get a home is too long, Girle said. It used to be a six month process from application to home completion. But the dwindling number of volunteers has created a three-year backlog.
Sonnier, who had been certain God wanted her to work in Mexico, assumed she was wrong when her internship fell through.
But an email from one of the other would-be interns, Kevin FitzGerald, prompted her to rethink her commitment. FitzGerald challenged the displaced interns to stay committed to their call and go to Mexico to build the houses. If they didn’t go as interns, they could go as Casas por Cristo crew leaders, he told them.
Sonnier and two others accepted FitzGerald’s challenge. Crew leaders must organize a work team of at least 12 people, raise $4,400 to $8,000 per home, and provide transportation to Casas por Cristo. All work crews provide their own meals and stay in churches in Mexico or in a Casas por Cristo facility in Guatemala.
Before the summer was over, the team of four students raised $50,000 and built 10 homes.
"This summer was the best period of my life by far,” Sonnier said.
The students became an inspiration to the Casas por Cristo staff, Girle said.
“They lit a fire in us,” she said. “There are still people who care [and] who will fight for these families. It was the gospel lived out.”
Casas por Cristo’s mission is to share the gospel by giving a free, unearned gift -- a home -- to a family in need. Applicants are connected to a local pastor who becomes a part of the application and building process in an effort to draw the families into a relationship with Christ and the local church.
Volunteer crews are not just part of a construction project but become an example of Christ’s love, Girle said.
Sonnier said it broke her heart to learn there would be no new applications accepted in Juarez in the foreseeable future. Although she understands the hesitancy some may have about going to the region, Sonnier said she never felt threatened or endangered the entire summer.
Casas por Cristo would never allow volunteers to enter a danger zone, Girle said. The ministry’s staff members have families and they work in the region regularly, and would not send others where they would not be willing to go themselves, she said.
If people don’t volunteer to build the homes, the Mexican and Guatemalan families “lose out on the opportunity to hear about God and Jesus,” Sonnier said.
c. 2011 WORLD News Service. Used with permission.
Publication date: November 4, 2011