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Ensenada orphanage sees drop in volunteers

February 15, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
In Ensenada, Mexico, nearly 7,000 children are orphans due to violence. Others are abandoned or living in the streets. While the number of orphans goes up, the number of Americans willing to cross the border to volunteer has gone down. Despite safety concerns one local couple has made it their mission to help. They live at the Door of Faith Orphanage in northern Mexico, but very few of the children are actually orphans. Most were neglected, abandoned or abused.

Jose Marquez was one of them. He came here as a child after living on the streets of Ensenada. And almost 14 years later, Jose is a staff member, helping to provide these children with a normal, healthy life.

"It's not an orphanage. It's like a big family," said Jose.

Despite the enthusiastic voices and the smiling faces on swing-sets and merry-go-rounds, there is something missing at Door of Faith.

"We aren't getting the supplies. We aren't getting the support like we used to," said D.J. Schuetze.

In recent months, the orphanage has seen a sharp drop in the number of American volunteers. There are simply fewer groups willing to spend time in a country where violence has reached record levels.

"It's perfectly safe in our area. Any of the violence going on is a long ways away," said Schuetze. "But that doesn't change the perception people have of Mexico."

Schuetze has spent the past 16 years of his life running the orphanage on the outskirts of Ensenada. The Orange County native and his wife, Lynette, are dedicated to providing a home for more than 90 abandoned, unwanted and orphaned children -- a mission made more difficult by safety concerns on the border.

"The drop in volunteers obviously has an impact on us," said Schuetze. "They come down, they give the kids attention, they work on projects. The kids are asking, When are groups coming down?"

"It's really sad to see that drop-off," said Lauren Bell, a volunteer. "We have a group here right now. We still get groups that come down, but it's not like it used to be."

Bell first came to the orphanage as a volunteer. The Ohio native returned a year later to join the staff at Door of Faith.

"You spend so much time with them and you really get to know them and their past and how they are," said Bell. "I mean it's hard not to get attached and to let them inside of you and you just love them so much."

The folks at Door of Faith say that the drop in American volunteers isn't only hurting the orphanage, because the children benefit from their visits, but that it's also hurting the volunteers themselves because they're missing out on what they say is a life-changing experience.

"The teens, the young adults that come down have a fantastic time," said Schuetze. "And they go back with a bigger worldview, a bigger understanding of what's out there, a bigger understanding of what's possible if they'll get out of their comfort zone. And we're here to serve the groups, too. So it hurts that that's not happening like it used to."

"Our kids love visitors. Our kids love and they need that extra one-on-one attention that we're able to give to them, but anything extra is amazing," said Bell.

Door of Faith is certainly not alone with it comes to a drop in American volunteers. But the orphanage continues moving forward, having recently completed construction on a nursery that will house as many as 10 infants, a dramatic upgrade from the existing facilities.

"As sad as this might seem, our kids are the lucky ones," said Schuetze. "There's a lot of kids on the streets of Tijuana, there's a lot of kids in really rough situations, and that's one of the reasons that we're here. We want to create a safe, healthy place for these kids to grow up and give them a future and break that cycle."

And on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a small volunteer group from San Diego helped provide the children with hamburgers and hot dogs, a welcome treat for the energetic youngsters. And while the number of volunteers is down, the work continues. Schuetze says that's not going to change.

"As odd as it sounds, we're here because we're incredibly selfish," said Schuetze. "We absolutely love doing what we're doing, and very few people can honestly say that."