One hundred and twenty college students from seven universities spent two months last summer working and studying in Mexico. The group spent three weeks in Mexico City at the Universidad Iberoamericana and five weeks working among 40 small villages throughout central Mexico—all a part of Project Mexico sponsored by the Church’s Division of Continuing Education. They conducted classes, made instructional visits to homes, and planned and carried out numerous projects, tutoring Church members and nonmembers alike. The students taught nutrition, health education, agriculture, reading and writing, English, genealogy, and youth leadership. While the chief goal of Project Mexico was to improve the living conditions of the Saints in Mexico, participating students also benefited, for they came away with rich experiences and insight. They tell of the lessons they learned in their own words:
“My team was privileged to work in San Lorenzo, a little village with just a handful of members. About five women and their children came to our lessons every Tuesday and Thursday, and even though their numbers were few, we felt their eagerness to learn. We met for classes in a humble room made of four brick walls covered by a large blanket, part of the home of Carmen and her husband Antonio. It wasn’t long before we realized that Carmen’s family needed our help. Of the 14 children born into the family only six had lived more than a year.
“Little Socorro, the youngest daughter, did not run and laugh like most three-year-olds but would sit quietly in our laps or stand solemnly and watch the other children play. Carmen told us that the child would not eat and she was sick much of the time. We tried to teach Carmen as simply as possible some very basic rules of sanitation and nutrition so that she could improve her family’s health. Our lessons covered the importance of boiling water to purify it, washing hands before eating or preparing food, and eating foods every day from each of the basic food groups. For a long time we couldn’t tell if Carmen was really using what we taught her. Then one day during our third week in the village, we asked her to help us with a demonstration on baby food. As she picked up the fork to begin, she hesitated and said, ‘Wait, I haven’t washed my hands yet.’ Such a tiny incident, but we were thrilled to know that one small principle we had taught had actually taken root.
“On our last day Carmen fed five of us a delicious stew of beef and vegetables; we knew she could rarely afford to buy this kind of meat for her own family. We were overwhelmed by such a sacrifice and so grateful for the blessing of those four weeks in the village, for as teachers we had truly learned more than we had taught.”
Salt Lake City, Utah
“By our standards the villagers of San Gabriel had very little, but they gave beyond their means. We were constantly showered with gifts of flowers, food, and mementos. But our first realization of how much they cared was exemplified by a six-year-old girl. As we were leaving the village after our fourth visit, young Cielo ran up to us with a bouquet of flowers. Before she could speak she burst into tears. After moments of surprise and confusion we were told that she had to return to school the next week and would not be able to attend our lessons again. Her unexpected display of emotion touched us deeply. As we tried to hold back our own tears, we assured her that we would visit her on Sunday.
“There were other such incidents during those weeks that also left lasting impressions, but our final visit was a fitting climax. As we sat in that humble, one-room chapel for the last time and felt the rain trickle in through the leaking roof, we were moved. We couldn’t hold back the tears as the members presented each of us with an onyx necklace they had made themselves. Through her tears one sister commented, ‘The chapel cries too because you must leave us!’
“As one man handed us each a box of candy, he earnestly asked us to convey the love of the Mexican people to the Saints in the United States.
“He wanted us to know that they too love the gospel. He wanted the world to know that Saints exist in San Gabriel.”
Carol Peterson, Fort Worth, Texas
Stana Smoot, Centerville, Utah
“There were times of laughter, times of work, times of fun, and times of discouragement. Discouragement! How can one word describe such a total feeling of inadequacy. At times this feeling crept into my mind as I attempted to work with the youth in the Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Women programs. In some villages there were very few young people in church on Sunday, and in other places activity night was the title of a nonexistent function.
“We had only five weeks to try to activate a program that had been dead for months, and in some places for years. My feelings of discouragement mounted. Then at the beginning of my third week, a spark of hope and encouragement came. On Sunday my partner and I met with the 19 youth in the small village of Tezontepec. I sat looking at each one of their eager, questioning faces and thought to myself how each person was important because someday he would emerge as a leader. But I discovered that as yet they had no leaders.
“How do you train leaders? We questioned the young people about what games they liked, but they knew none. Then we noticed that the youth seemed to look to us for guidance, and we looked to them for enthusiasm. The joy of seeing these young people enthusiastic about something excited us. To our amazement, we saw leadership blossoming before our eyes. Once they were directed in the proper path, they seemed able to function as a united force. A youth committee was formed, and even a talent show became an idea that turned into a reality. One young lady who had previously never come to the Aaronic Priesthood and the Young Women activity night became the coordinator for the talent show. A feeling of exhilaration filled me as I saw her turn from an uninterested personality into an exciting and vivacious young girl.”
“On the first day we asked our reading and writing students what they wanted to study after they had completed the course, and they all said they wanted to read the scriptures. One of my students in Cacalotepec also said she wanted to learn how to read so she could lead the singing better. In fact, there were three other song leaders from Cacalotepec who had all come to learn so they could better fill their Church callings.
“At our farewell party each of us bore testimony to our thankfulness and love for the people. One girl got up and with almost uncontrollable tears thanked us for the work we were doing. She told us that we were making her branch better. She said that you can’t progress if you can’t read the scriptures and the words of the prophets. Then she expressed her amazement that we would come here on our vacations and work with the people when we could stay home and have an enjoyable time. Words just couldn’t express to her how much we had learned and gained from her village and that it was the best summer vacation I have ever spent.”
“I remember observing one elderly sister learning how to read. I watched her wrinkled face and beautiful black eyes light up like the sun as she read the first words she had ever read in Spanish: eso, mesa, mama. This came only after a solid week and a half of learning to recognize and distinguish sounds. Now, finally, she was able to put them together into words, the most difficult task of all. Nothing in the world could equal the joy that radiated from her face and eyes as she slowly read those words. Nor could anything take away the joy I felt upon realizing that we were actually helping this woman. Someday, perhaps, she will be able to sit down and read and study the scriptures.
“I never realized before how lucky I really am to be who I am. How much I take for granted the gifts and talents I have. I had never considered that being able to read is a blessing, a gift, and a talent. It is all three! Why is it that we never realize this until the day we meet someone who is without? I know now that I wouldn’t trade anything in the world for this experience and awakening.”
“We walked the last half of the journey to Atexcac; it usually took an hour and a half when we were feeling well and two or more when we weren’t. On our arrival the people usually asked if we were tired. One Sunday they asked, and we said, ‘Not really,’ and so in sacrament meeting they gave talks on the body being a temple, and how the Word of Wisdom helped us from being tired. We made sure we weren’t tired from then on.”
Shirl Lee Roper
Crownpoint, New Mexico
“I learned what it means to give. These people give when their wells are nearly dry. We were each given a loaf of bread at one home visit, and then a fourth loaf was divided up among the nine children and their mother. We were invited to a sister’s home to share the small birthday cake of her two-year-old son. His birthday wasn’t until the next day, but she knew we wouldn’t be there, and so it was cut especially for us. It was, perhaps, a small gesture, but it was a sacrifice on their part and a great lesson in giving.”
“I felt that through this project we actually learned more than did the people we taught. Most of us grew up in comfortable homes and environments without many challenges or problems. We came to Mexico to spend a few short weeks working with these people, and we were brought to the realization that we take for granted many of the blessings we are able to enjoy every day. We were able to get involved in serving others and thus forget our own self-centeredness. Through doing this we were able to learn to truly love one another.”