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20131116 LDS-house-project JS 3706 featureLA JOYA—Living on dirt floors, taking cold showers while exposed to the elements, tripping over extension cords carrying electricity into small, ramshackle homes—many children in the rural areas of La Joya have more to worry about each day than solving equations or spelling college-level words.

Erika Salinas, Juarez-Lincoln High School social worker, said there are always new colonias popping up in the surrounding area, and because it’s rural, there’s no code enforcement. That means people can set up cardboard rooms or tents if they wish, Salinas said.

“It makes it real hard for our kids because they don’t have enough food or they’re bathing outside,” Salinas said.

Many students start thinking about dropping out of school as they get older because they want to get jobs to help their families.

“They’re coming out here; they’re buying lots, but it’s really hard for them to start building something, and when we offer them a little bit of relief, I know it makes a difference for our students,” Salinas said.

So when leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contacted the school district a year ago, asking in what ways volunteers could join forces to improve area residents’ quality of life, La Joya ISD was ready. The district selected 10 families for the church to impact in big ways, even bringing in contractors to make assessments of what the houses needed.

Because the area was designated by Hidalgo County as one in need, it was targeted by the church for its second annual Mormon Helping Hands service project. Last year, 700 volunteers took on Llano Grande, a colonia south of Weslaco.

A year in the making, the church’s project Saturday went far past the typical brush-clearing, house-painting service day—though that work was done, too. Across the area, hundreds of skilled volunteers replaced roofing, installed flooring and hung drywall at the selected homes.

“Two of them have an inside shower for the first time ever, there’s some that have electricity in their house for the first time ever, and some of them now have plumbing,” said Brice Chandler, an area leader of the church.

20131116 LDS-house-project JS 3705Volunteers came from as far as Edinburg and Mercedes. Chandler himself was busy painting a home Saturday morning, emphasizing that blessings come to those who are working.

“The central part of our religion is trying to be like Jesus Christ, and he taught and in his life everywhere he went he tried to help people, especially the less fortunate,” Chandler said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to try and follow Jesus Christ. And it doesn’t matter what religion you are or if you don’t believe in God or anything. Who doesn’t feel better when they go out and help someone?”

Not only did volunteers do work at individual houses, but they also cleaned up nearby Katarina Park and North Park and distributed clothing to nearby residents, using the high school as their base camp. Others went door-to-door in the Pueblo de Palmas colonia, picking up trash and debris and dumping it into roll-off trash bins provided by the Hidalgo County Pct. 3 Sanitation Department.

Worth the wait

A year ago, Guadalupe de la Cruz and her husband were contacted by the school district to detail their family’s living situation. It was not long after the family moved into a structure constructed mostly of plywood and exposed 2-by-4 beams on dirt floors off of La Homa Road.

They hung a tarp across the front of the building to keep dirt from flying into it and keep the children from getting sick. The family had been renting a house, but when the owner died, siblings started squabbling over ownership and the de la Cruz was family was forced to find a new home.

The man of the house picks oranges for a living and the couple has four children to support. One of those children is already working and helped them afford the down payment for the lot.

Saturday, Guadalupe de la Cruz sat in front of the home, out of the way as a group of men hung sheetrock inside the house. Earlier, volunteers with the church had poured concrete to form a foundation, relieving the family from the dirt floors.

Church members also installed insulation and a kitchen cabinet and sink.

“The house is starting to look really pretty,” de la Cruz said in Spanish. “The kids come home from school running every day to see if the house is finished.”

Meanwhile, at a house off Bentsen Palm Drive, on the north side of Mile 7, several men dug a trench through a backyard to bury electricity lines to a small house that also was getting a shower installed. Until Saturday, the house received electricity through extension cords.

“We have a shower but it was kind of outside, and we would get cold but now we won't have to be cold,” said homeowner Teresa Acuna.

Across the street, Lydia Chia stood in front of a trailer with a toddler contentedly in her arms.

It wasn’t her trailer and the toddler wasn’t her child, but Chia and several other volunteers were ready to get to work replacing the floor of a small house. Chia moved to Mission from Michigan, but as a member of the church more than 20 years, she’s used to doing service work for others. The church teaches its members to be self-reliant, but also to give help when needed.

With six children of her own, Chia said the most important lesson to be learned Saturday is for children to know it’s important to help others.

“It’s not about you,” she said. “Wherever you’re going, there are people that are worse off. Count your blessings.”

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