When Conchita Walker flies from Hoonah to Mexico, it's not to drink margaritas on the beach.
Walker goes south to fight poverty and ignorance, helping mothers and children she finds begging on the streets in Queretaro, Mexico, learn skills, finish school and even attend college.
A Mexican Fiesta at St. Ann's Hall on Saturday will help raise funds for the empowerment center Walker started six years ago, El Puente de Esperanza or The Bridge of Hope Foundation. Volunteers from Juneau have helped through the years and have been astounded by Walker's project.
``One step at a time, Conchita's got this vision and she's not letting anything get in her way,'' said Pete Hokky, a local Catholic diocese staffer who has been to El Puente twice as a volunteer.
About 15 years ago Walker began volunteering in Latin American orphanages for three months at a time. She was drawn to Latin America because that's where she was born and raised. Fluent in Spanish and able to fit into the culture, Walker spoke to many of the poor people the orphanages were supposed to be serving.
``There's a tremendous amount of verbal and physical abuse by the caretakers, who are only there for the pay and have no other education and need a job and could care less what happens with these children in 20 years,'' Walker said.
The orphanages don't educate children beyond the sixth grade. Walker was disturbed to see the young girls she taught sewing in an orphanage in Mexico leaving after junior high to become maids or mothers.
``In a world that's developing with technology like ours, a sixth-grade education doesn't even get you in the door to be a servant, so the young girls go back on the street to prostitution,'' Walker said.
In 1994 she decided to prolong the girls' education through high school and even college so they could have a better future. She started with $3,000 from Whitestone Logging in Hoonah, which her husband owns and runs, and a rented house in Queretaro, a short bus ride from Mexico City.
The girls Walker started with are now in college. One girl she taught to sew at age 12 is now at the top of her class at an elite university, studying industrial clothing design.
``Every time I go to one of her fashion shows and hear her name being announced and see her out on stage, it just gives me incredible energy,'' said Walker, who added boys to the program the second year.
Then Walker began to notice the beggar women when she went to the marketplace nearby. Mostly Otomi, an indigenous people, the women and their children were living in extreme poverty, Walker said. They survived on $5 to $10 a week and slept in shelters built from scavenged rocks, cardboard and sheets, said Hokky.
As Walker talked to the women, they began to tell her about their lives.
``I had to try something, even if it failed, because now I had a moral obligation,'' Walker said. ``To know the suffering of another and not lift a hand to help is serious stuff.''
At first she brought them blankets, clothes and medicine, but she realized she was just maintaining their suffering. So she moved her El Puente center into an abandoned conservatory of music near the market and invited the women to come live there. Walker set up a preschool for the children in the building and taught the women to read, write, do math, cook and sew.
Now 60 women and children live at El Puente. The first five women are graduating from the vocational program this summer. Four of them will return to the mountain villages they came from, where Walker had new houses built for them. The fifth will stay at El Puente as a sewing instructor.
The new homes are 15- by 20-foot ``cement shoeboxes,'' Hokky said. By American standards they're hovels, but to the families, the homes are a huge step up. Hokky is looking for four to six volunteers to help him pour cement floors and build shelves and furnishings in the homes this July.
``They have no furniture at all, so everything is just spread out on the ground,'' Hokky said.
The success of El Puente can be seen in how it has transformed people, Hokky said. He was struck by the difference between the children he saw in the market in Queretaro and the ones at El Puente. In the market 3- and 4-year-olds stood like statues.
``Those kids will just stand there and look at their feet. They don't play, they don't speak,'' Hokky said.
That's how many of the children at El Puente were when they were brought into the program. After a couple years they relaxed and learned to play. At recess, the flagstone courtyard is full of children, playing soccer, riding tricycles, laughing and talking.
The only Spanish Hokky speaks is what the children taught him. When the children first met Hokky, they thought the 6-foot, 4-inch Juneau man was a giant and were afraid. Then they realized he would play with them.
``The words I learned were lift me, carry me and spin me,'' Hokky said. ``Altame, cargame, wuerte.''
The fund-raising dinner Saturday will support El Puente. Mina Loera, a Juneau woman from Mexico, will prepare the meal, including homemade tortillas, stuffed peppers and tres leches cake.
``She's even having her mother send up some cactus,'' said Pat Denny, another Juneau volunteer who organized the fund-raising dinner after visiting El Puente.
The dinner will include a pinata for children, entertainment and a presentation on the Otomi people of Mexico. It will start at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at St. Ann's Hall on Fifth and Harris streets downtown. Tickets are available at Hearthside Books or at the door for $14, or a couple for $25 or a family for $35.
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