SOLAR SAFE HOUSE: Manhattan Beach Rotary man finds sustainable way to help Baja orphanages
Backed by the service organization both locally and internationally, a retired Manhattan Beach architect wants to install solar panels on the rooftops of Baja orphanages
The first time Randall Meadors stayed overnight at Casa Hogar, he saw that the crumbling orphanage and the children who lived there were in trouble.
No electricity or phones. A gaping hole in the floor. Broken toilets. The 35 or so kids, ages ranging from 3 to 18, were living off pancake mix. Despite the freezing temperature, the buildings had no heat. Some dozen staff members hadn’t been paid in more than six months.
That visit, in December 2010, was Meadors’ first journey alone to the shanty village called El Zorillo, outside Ensenada along the Baja peninsula in Mexico. The 63-year-old “semi-retired” architect had come out several times earlier in the year with a fellow member of the Manhattan Beach Rotary Club to do some concrete work on the campus. Over the weekend, they cemented roadways, fixed leaky roofs and replaced broken windows, staying overnight at a hotel in Ensenada.
Staying overnight at the orphanage alone for the first time allowed Meadors to more deeply connect with the children within its dilapidated walls, and understand their plight for what it was – pure survival. He was deeply moved.
The weary couple running the orphanage confided to Meadors that they were enduring one of the toughest times in their 20 years of operation. Their sole benefactor, a ministry based in Southern California, had pulled out without an explanation a few months ago. They asked Meadors if he could help.
“They were just getting through the day, that was their whole thing,” he says. “It just didn’t seem like what we were doing by going down and doing trips was really gonna make any difference.”
The following month, January of 2011, Randy packed up a 16-foot camping trailer (formerly used for his astrophotography excursions) and left the comforts of his home on The Strand in Manhattan Beach for Casa Hogar Canon Buena Vista. He was in it for the long haul, with the vision of first stabilizing the orphanage’s financial and administrative operations then building a sustainable site plan for the campus.
Over the next two years, he would spend the week at the orphanage, with people who would become his family and children who’d come to feel like grandchildren. Over the weekend, he’d come home to Gail, his very patient wife in Manhattan Beach, and report his progress to the Rotary Club, who was supporting the project.
“I shared their experience with them,” he says. “When they didn’t have food, I didn’t have food. I had to get up and get the kids to school with no electricity or hot water. You see what it’s like – how hard they really try. I don’t know how many people would endure here.”
Casa Hogar Canon Buena Vista is one of 16 independently-run orphanages in the southern Ensenada. As with all Casa Hogars, it is licensed and regulated by the state government but receives no financial assistance, state or federal.
The most common help for such orphanages come in the form of volunteer groups, often faith-based, parachuting in for a weekend for brick and mortar work, building shanties and fixing what’s broken. Meadors says these weekend retreats – while well-intentioned – only scratch at the surface of the real issues. What an orphanage like Casa Hogar Canon Buena Vista needed was deep expertise and a sustainable, long-term plan.
Today, the entire 3.5-acre campus of Casa Hogar runs on solar electricity, shaving off $1,400 on average in monthly operating costs. The site has solar-heated hot water and the buildings have propane-fired heaters. Meadors’ success at Casa Hogar has given birth to Rotary Solar, an international grant program under Rotary International to install solar electric systems in other orphanages across Baja. Six sites have applied so far, through their local Rotary clubs.
Casa Gabriel, a facility that houses some 30 severely handicapped children from birth to age 12, is next on the list to get solar panels installed. On this particular day, in June of this year, a group of children mill about in the shaded terrace next to the small wooden playground. Three boys in wheelchairs, each paired with a girl, practice dance steps for their elementary school graduation ceremony at the end of the month.
“All these dreams seem impossible,” says Renie Faver, Casa Gabriel’s founder, “but this was too.”
Twenty-five years ago, Faver, 69, was a single mother of two in Washington. Feeling called to do missionary work in Mexico, she sold everything and bought an airstream trailer. She founded Casa Gabriel for the child “who has no protection,” she says.
Her son Scott joined her not long after and serves as the resident handyman. His wife Marisol, a daughter of migrant workers, was brought into Casa Gabriel as a child born with her hips outside her sockets. The couple is among the orphanage’s 30 staff members, many of whom are mothers helping out with laundry (the five machines in the back run all day long; they go through an inordinate number of diapers every day), cooking, childcare and such. They are mostly volunteers.
A young couple walks into the dim building. The 23-year-old man is cradling their two-month-old baby, Roberto de Jesus. He was born with down syndrome and a heart congenital defect. His parents’ eyes betray their concern and fear for the child. With Marisol translating between the couple and Renie, they work out a deal. The mother, a timid 20-year-old, can work as a kitchen helper for a small pay and bring her son with her every morning. Both parties seem moved, satisfied. The couple looks relieved.
When the truck rolls to a stop outside Casa Hogar Canon Buena Vista, Meadors slides out of his seat and yells over to a group of kids congregated outside a building.
Big smiles. The kids come running down and smother him with hugs. It feels like yesterday when he was picking them up from school, taking them camping or to the movies, Meadors says.
The campus of Casa Hogar Canon Buena Vista sits atop a dirt hill with a vast soccer field. A cluster of kids haul a red wagon packed with dry milk cartons, while another group hangs out in the administrative office inside the abandoned trailer Randy fixed up during his time there. Most of the kids are still in school.
Soledad Cota, the orphanage director, is a small lady with an unmistakably strong spirit. Her husband Eliseo is big in stature but few in words. The Cota family has three daughters, all raised at Casa Hogar and now working there.
Next fall, their oldest Dallana will attend CETYS University, the largest private university in Ensenada, under a full-ride scholarship along with two other girls, who will enroll in the high school program. The university recently signed off on the annual scholarship program for Casa Hogar kids in partnership with Todos Santos Rotary Club, a local chapter introduced through Meadors.
Todos Santos Rotary, now a sister club to Manhattan Beach Rotary, also announced last month that under a new agreement initiated with the state’s health director, Casa Hogar children will begin receiving government-funded health care and hospital services in Baja California.
In part due to his declining health (he requires a wheelchair after a long period of walking) Meadors has returned full time to his life and family in Manhattan Beach. A few times a month, he treks to Ensenada, checking in with Casa Hogar as well as his good friends at Todos Santos Rotary, who will be taking the reins. He’s become something of an honorary member, and is affectionately nicknamed “Guerito” – or little white man.
“It’s an unfolding story,” he says. “It has been for the last four years.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.friendsofcasahogarcbv.org. Friends of Casa Hogar Canon Buena Vista is a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded by Randy Meadors to provide financial support for the orphanage.