Doxa creates opportunities for people to serve Tijuana through
house building, education, and long-term community.
Empowering young people has been central to Doxa since day one. At a basic level, empowering others involves equipping with necessary tools and facilitating opportunity. When both of these are done well, it leads to intentionally holding space for growth. Allowing young people to surprise you as their unique gifts blossom and develop.
Another essential part of empowering young people is not controlling the outcome. Allowing space for failure also means allowing space for success. Having young people develop their own motivations and agency results in growth. We, meanwhile, fully acknowledge that this process may be a bit bumpy. Afterall, life isn’t always perfect.
Doxa has been careful to incorporate the value of empowering young people into the fabric of each mission area: house building, education, and community. It certainly looks different in each area, but the central ideas of equipping and facilitating remain constant.
In the early 1990s, house building operations were just starting. Volunteer groups were all comprised of high school youth from churches. James B. Notkin, youth pastor at the time, recalled using the house building experience as part of a shift in youth ministry from an entertainment model to an empowerment model. An opportunity that allowed young people to push themselves, see Christ in a new way, and make a big impact on others in the process.
Doxa provides the materials, qualified recipient family, tools, and manual necessary to build a house. The design of the house is purposeful in its simplicity, utility, and appropriateness for the context in which it is in. A wood structure that is easy enough to build for those without experience, but also of necessary building standards and quality for life in Tijuana. This intentionally provides space for groups of young people to successfully build a house in less than a week’s time with little or no building experience. It is not necessarily easy, days can be long, hard, and dirty. However, it is more than doable and each team completes it in their own way.
Oftentimes, the takeway message is that young people do not need to wait, get more educated, have more experience, or grow up in order to make a meaningful difference in the world. That through the gifts they already have, and those they will develop along the way, young people are ready to start now. Another factor, which sometimes gets overlooked is that building a house is a very tangible outcome. It’s easy to step back at the end of the week, see the difference and the life-changing impact on the recipient family (not to mention the cross-cultural relationships that have been formed). It’s a very perceptible experience from start to finish.
It is Doxa’s hope that this house building opportunity of empowering young people will spill over into other areas of their lives. As they return back home, changed from their experience in Tijuana.
Doxa takes a holistic approach to its education program. Mexican students come from varying backgrounds, so each needs a little something different in order to have the opportunity to succeed scholastically. Equipping students can mean providing uniforms, shoes, backpacks, school supplies, tuition fees, transportation, and medical/dental/vision checkups. These are the basic necessities just to get in the door and have an opportunity.
Thinking beyond the basic necessities, Doxa further provides the opportunity to study well and succeed. We do this by operating after-school resource classrooms with qualified tutors, Internet, and computer/printer access. These dedicated spaces, provide the opportunity for students to study in a focused atmosphere that is not distracting or full of other temptations. Almost all of Doxa’s students live in houses that are no larger than 500 square feet and house 4-8 people. It’s extremely rare that any of them would have a dedicated study space.
Thankfully, in the past several years, it has gotten easier to find spots in school for incoming students. However, in the event that a family can’t find a spot in school for their child, we use our network to help. Tijuana’s school system is made up of several types of schools: federal, state, municipal, and private. Each school has its own teachers, principal, and rules. It results in a complicated patchwork system for parents to navigate.
Doxa is committed to do anything in order to provide a quality opportunity for students to succeed in school, but only when they are also motivated. Each family and student drive their own success, while Doxa takes care of providing the necessary tools and opportunity. This approach results in ownership over their school journey, with almost all students achieving higher levels of education than their parents did.
In 2017, Doxa interviewed over 70 families who had received houses since the early 1990s. One of the key takeaways of this study was that youth who did not experience much outside of their own neighborhood ended up following in their family’s (and neighbor’s) footsteps. While not necessarily bad to do the same as your parents, it’s important to be equipped with the knowledge that there’s other options and avenues.
Empowering young people at Doxa’s community center is all about exposure and opportunity. It’s exposure to new skills, things, and experiences. It’s opportunity to put into practice, perform, and showcase what one has learned or seen.
For example, Doxa’s dance group (called Yelitza) is led by Juan Sabino. He not only teaches the dance moves, history, and meaning; but also uses his connections to get performances lined up. Yelitza performs about 35 times per year in venues that range from city-wide performances to private parties. He takes the group all over Tijuana. It’s a way that Doxa’s youth get exposure to others within the dance world and can use Yelitza as a stepping-stone to bigger things. In this way, Yelitza’s reputation has also been elevated and is known for cultivating some of the best new dancers in Tijuana.
It’s also important to get young people exposure to new surroundings. Baja California is an extraordinary state, rich in history and natural beauty. However, you wouldn’t necessarily know that from living in the city of Tijuana. Each year, Doxa takes its youth to the cultural center and then out of the city for a camping trip. An opportunity to leave one’s surroundings and see something new. For many young people, this is their first time outside of the city of Tijuana.
Through exposure to new and unfamiliar things, young people’s imagination and curiosity are awakened. They can see possibilities that they didn’t know existed and try many different things to see what fits them best. After all that, if they decide to follow in their family’s footsteps, that’s great. And if they choose a different path, that’s great, too. It’s the provision of opportunity that allows them the freedom to choose and become motivated about their own futures.
On October 12, 2022 Unidos por Siempre celebrated its 20th anniversary. A big milestone for any organization. Located in Rojo Gomez, a neighborhood in Eastern Tijuana, Unidos por Siempre has seen its surroundings change dramatically. Back in 2002, Rojo Gomez was largely vacant land with no utilities, schools, or infrastructure. Nowadays, Rojo Gomez is much more developed with access to running water and electricity (in most areas), schools that offer K-12 classes, some paved roads, and stores. Just as the surrounding neighborhood has evolved over the past 20 years, so has Unidos por Siempre. Maria, who founded Unidos por Siempre, and Angeles, who grew up and now works at Unidos por Siempre shared some of their experiences over the past 20 years.
Angeles explained that Unidos por Siempre has gone through three major chapters in its life: soup kitchen, orphanage, and social assistance. The constant, though, is its commitment to the Rojo Gomez community and maintaining relevance by adapting to changing needs.
From 2002 until 2008, Unidos por Siempre was only a soup kitchen. Angeles was just 6 years old at the time and remembers helping to bring out chairs and tables each day for other kids to come and eat lunch. She vividly recalls that one of the tables was made of particle board and the corner would slowly get chipped away from all its use. Maria remembers a big tree that used to provide shade, but also get in the way. During those years, Unidos por Siempre established itself as a place where the community could come to eat and gather for a little bit each day.
Then, from 2008 until 2020, Unidos por Siempre became an orphanage. Angeles remembers that it all started with a pull-out couch, which was the first bed. She recalls there being a mountain of kids around as they would have pajama parties regularly. Maria reminisces on all the energy and excitement there was as more beds and rooms were slowly added. Most kids were from the surrounding community and needed outside support to survive. There were also some kids from DIF that the government temporarily placed there. Maria is proud about those days, in which they didn’t always have everything needed, but did they best they could. What they lacked in resources, they made up for with kids and community.
Maria specifically recounts three kids who have had a lasting impact on her. Osvaldo came to live at Unidos por Siempre when he was 9 and was very timid a first. What ended up bringing him out of his shell was the food and sharing mealtime with everyone. He lived at Unidos por Siempre for years, ended up completing college, and is now a criminologist. Luis is another child who grew up at Unidos por Siempre, who is now an engineer. Gustavo is yet another child to complete college and is now an accountant. Maria’s face beams with pride as she recounts their stories, like she’s being taking on a trip down memory lane herself.
Angeles calls the current chapter of Unidos por Siempre “social assistance.” While there are still kids who call Unidos por Siempre their permanent home, it is not the same quantity or need that the orphanage used to fulfill. Angeles explains that the community of Rojo Gomez isn’t quite as poor as it used to be and the needs are slowly changing. Maria adds that the main focuses of Unidos por Siempre are now temporary housing for kids and families, education, childcare, and food. Maria’s desire and call to the community of Rojo Gomez is as strong as ever, even as needs change.
When asked about the legacy of Unidos por Siempre, Maria gets a little emotional and conveys her hope that each person passing through would know and love God, be well-educated, and learn the value of cleanliness. She states that the best inheritance she can leave for kids is a good education. Angeles agrees and adds that her journey to finish college wasn’t always easy, but wouldn’t have been possible without Unidos por Siempre’s help.
Today, Maria sees the impact of her many years of work as most of the kids still keep in contact. She gets invited to quinceañeras, weddings, and baby shows. It’s not uncommon for her to see kids that grew up in Unidos por Siempre with kids of their own now. Just as Unidos por Siempre has made a big difference in the lives of many children, Maria has also come out changed. It’s impossible for anyone to forgot those formative years together.
Maria closes our time together on a note of thankfulness. She is grateful for all the help and opportunity to know so many people. She has crossed paths with kids, Tijuana government officials, volunteers, families, and various partners on both sides of the border. She’s joyful and thankful to have been in a position to invest time, love, and care into so many lives that have come through Unidos por Siempre.
Prior to the early 2010s, sustainability wasn’t much talked about at Doxa. The organization had hummed along just fine and survived various ups and downs (thankfully). A good testament to diligently taking things one step at a time and not concerning ourselves with things too far into the future. While that strategy worked for a while, if Doxa was to grow its impact as an organization, the topic of sustainability would need to be explored. The addition of education programming and community development to ongoing house building operations further emphasized the need for sustainable leadership and funding.
By 2011 Doxa’s operations and partnerships were becoming more complex on both sides of the border. Even with these changes, it took several more years to implement some sustainable leadership and funding practices. In fact, the COVID pandemic actually helped to speed some of this work along and put sustainability back on the minds of everyone at Doxa. Two distinct areas where Doxa has focused on sustainability are in its leadership and staff structure, and its financial and funding sources.
Leadership and Staff Structure
Prior to 2015 Doxa had only 1 full-time staff member in Tijuana, which was Rosa. For those that knew her, she was an incredibly capable and efficient person. At times, we marveled at how she seemed to do the work of many people at the same time! Everyone has their limits, though, and even Doxa’s operations got to a point where it was getting to be too much for Rosa on her own. Starting in 2016 and over the course of the next couple years, we added 5 more full-time positions and various part-time positions.
With the exception of Doxa’s executive director, everyone else is employed in Mexico to carry out Doxa’s operations on the ground. This serves as a direct commitment to employing and building up people in the same neighborhoods in which Doxa works. Staff are active community participants, regularly involved in the local church, orphanages, and other activities apart from their Doxa work. Doxa’s staff have a culture of love, hard work, joy, and fun (we’re still working on having a little more grace sometimes!) Simple things, like giving vacation time to staff no longer necessitates the pausing of operations as there are people available to temporarily fill various roles. This allows Doxa as an organization to more easily grow and adapt as necessary without being dependent upon one person.
Another change has been the creation of a Mexican non-profit entity, Doxa Tijuana A.C. This entity provides Doxa with legal standing in Mexico, ability to own land, legally provide employment, and creation of a local board of directors. It also qualifies Doxa for resources throughout Tijuana that are only available to legal and registered non-profit organizations. Having Doxa legally exist in Tijuana allows for future opportunities and adds an additional level of staying power for future generations.
Finally, regarding the U.S. non-profit entity, something as simple as term limits for U.S. board members has helped gently nudge Doxa to recruit some new leadership. Developing a pipeline of new board members also helps to continuously expand Doxa’s footprint. Whether its governance, fundraising, organizational history, leadership, or just about anything else, it can help to have more people, expertise, and resources under the same tent.
Financial and Funding Sources
Prior to Doxa’s expansion into the education and community mission areas, its funding model was fairly simple. Volunteer groups would pay for house building materials and a few other items that helped them successfully stay in Tijuana during their trip. Items such as drinking water and even a small donation to the orphanage where they stayed. While this was sufficient in the early days, there were years where both Doxa and the partner orphanage were not even covering their own costs. Upon realizing this, Doxa reworked its house building model to fully cover building materials, administration, family selection, and make it a revenue generator for the partner orphanage. This ensured financial sustainability with regard to house building operations and also helped contribute to the financial sustainability of the partner orphanage.
From the early 2010s, as Doxa’s education and community programs started to grow, we sought to diversify funding sources and develop new ones. These included individual giving, private company matching, applying to church mission budgets, board giving, and in-kind donations from Tijuana sources. COVID provided the first big test of these other funding sources, as groups were unable to come build in 2020 and 2021, so house building revenue dried up. Thankfully, we made it through, but still have work to do. In 2020, Doxa saw a total of 134 donors and 79 first-time donors. In 2021, Doxa saw a total of 124 donors and 63 first-time donors. When you give, you’re in good company and part of a larger community!
There is still lots of room for improvement as Doxa evaluates what sustainability looks like through various lenses. It is something that needs careful and diligent stewardship; commitment for the long-run. We are so thankful to everyone who has stepped up and journeyed along with Doxa, especially over the past few years. We hope to continue building on this progress towards an organizationally and financially sustainable Doxa that can continue for generations to come.
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