“You’re going where?” The Mexican official seemed genuinely amused.
“But nobody goes to Quitovac,” he laughed. “There’s nothing there.”
“We’re going to the school. To see friends.”
“Okay,” he said, shaking his head. “Go ahead. But if I were you, I’d go to the beach instead.” He was still chuckling as we left.
Americans do come down this way from Tucson, Arizona, across the Tohono O’odham Nation (Papago) Indian Reservation to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, through Lukeville, then over the border into Sonoita. Mostly the Americans are tourists or university students on break, looking for the sun. They find it on the beaches of the Gulf of California, which aren’t far away.
But nobody goes to Quitovac. Nobody.
That is, of course, unless you have friends there. And the LDS youth of Tucson have friends in Quitovac, more than 70 of them.
The friendships began, as many good things do, at Christmas. And even though right now the sun was beating down, the five young people and two leaders headed to Quitovac today were quick to tell their Christmas story.
“Brother Rehm got things going, I guess,” said Brian Simmons, 18, referring to Norbert Rehm, a high councilor in the Tucson Stake who previously served as branch president on the Indian reservation. Through that association, Brother Rehm became aware of the Alberque School in Quitovac, a school in need of help.
“It’s a boarding school where parents who can’t afford to raise their children send them to live,” Brian explained. “The government built the school for the Indians, but it’s funded only by donations.”
Conditions are tough. The dormitory is a barracks-like structure with concrete floors and broken windows. There is no running water. Showers from a bucket are allowed once a week. Two small bathrooms serve all 70 children. Toilets don’t flush unless tanks are filled with water carried from half a mile away. Electricity is available only when a generator is working—twice a year. Sometimes food runs out.
“To keep warm, the kids sleep two to a bed” (four to a bunk bed), said Danyel Colvin, 15, also of the Tanque Verde Ward. “In the winter, the cold wind blows right in.”
The LDS youth wanted to help. With Brother Rehm acting as go-between with the school and the Mexican government (there are strict limitations about who and what—like glass for windows—can cross the border), a campaign was launched to gather supplies the school could use. Youth in the Tucson 17th Ward gathered and prepared clothing and toys. Canned food, some basic medical supplies, and vitamins were also collected. When the ward was divided to form the Tanque Verde and Bear Canyon Wards, both units kept the project going.
The day after Thanksgiving, about 30 young Latter-day Saints and their leaders (one dressed as Santa Claus) headed to Quitovac. “We got our first look at the village,” Danyel said. “Many houses were built only of sticks. There were no trees or bushes, no roads. Just dirt and some buildings.” The school yard—an administration building, a study building with two classrooms, a covered pavilion for outdoor assemblies, and the dormitory—was also set in a barren landscape.
“Then we met the children,” Danyel continued. “There were lots of kids with no shoes. It was cold and windy, but they were wearing shorts and T-shirts.”
“We started by handing out some candy,” said Michael Walston, 14, of the Tanque Verde Ward. Then, with help from school officials, shoes and clothing were distributed. And toys.
“I helped one boy put together a toy,” Michael’s sister Susanne, 17, remembered. “He kept talking and talking. He knew I didn’t understand Spanish, and he didn’t understand English. But it was like I was his best friend. We didn’t have to speak the same language. We could communicate without saying anything.”
That was typical of the magic that happened. Teenagers and young children paired up like they’d known each other forever. There was a Christmas program, there were lots of hugs, and there was a lot of joy in Quitovac that day. But the thing Susanne remembers most is how eager the children seemed just to have someone take an interest in them.
“Sure, they were glad we brought some things,” she said. “But more than that, they wanted to share with us, even if all they could share was a smile.” That was what made the memory pleasant. That was what made a return to Quitovac worthwhile.
And now, here we were.
We turned from one dirt road to another, came over a small hill, and there, in the middle of nowhere, was the village. Now, months after Christmas, would the children even remember the earlier visit? Now, when the sun was hot and winds calm, would the friendship still be there?
The answer was quick in coming. The dust from our arriving vehicles had hardly settled when we were mobbed by children. Yes, we brought some supplies, some candy, some food. But again what mattered was the sharing. Children who didn’t speak English guided teenagers who didn’t speak Spanish around their school, their classrooms, their playground. Kids watched Brian, who brought along a tool kit, fix a broken swing and re-attach fiberglass panels on the pavilion.
Michael and Susanne organized volleyball and basketball games. Danyel gave piggyback rides. Crystal Smith, 15, of the Sonora 18th Ward, Tucson Stake, became an instant celebrity with school officials because she speaks Spanish and could act as an interpreter.
We were shown the school’s new hand-operated mimeograph machine. A flag ceremony and school assembly were held in our honor. And the principal presented a letter of thanks to the LDS youth.
But it was Walt Stone, a seminary teacher who accompanied the group, who summarized what meeting with the children of Alberque School taught us. “These kids have dignity,” he said. “Everything they own fits on the half of the bed they sleep in. But they share whatever they have.”
An example: “One boy brought out his bag of marbles—the only marbles in the school,” Walt said. “A bunch of us joined him in a game. Nobody argued about winning anything; they just had fun. And when the game was over, the marbles went back in the bag, and he put them back on his bed. He knew they would be safe.”
Many times we saw older children looking out for others, making sure the youngest (some are little more than one year old) weren’t neglected. If anyone tripped and skinned a knee, others were instantly there to help. When teachers asked students to do something, it was immediately taken care of. Students marched, stood at attention, posed with us for a school photo, hugged us over and over again, and literally clung to the teenagers when it was finally time to leave.
All the way home, the youth talked about their day in the sun.
“That was great, even better than Christmas,” Brian said.
“What you never forget are their faces,” Danyel added. “There’s such joy in their faces. Designer jeans and worldly things don’t really matter down here. What’s important is to enjoy life, and to share your joy with others.”
Nobody goes to Quitovac, the Mexican official said. But he was absolutely wrong. Friends come to Quitovac. And their friendship shines all the brighter when they leave. The tourists and the students who drive to the beach seeking the sun take the wrong road. The brightest light is found where people help each other. It’s the light of Christlike service, and it’s a light that shines brighter than any sun.
The friendship with Quitovac didn’t end with just two visits. As this story was being prepared for publication, we learned that the youth from the Rincon Stake had been to the Alberque School again.
They brought quilts they had made, one for each child at the school. An LDS dentist came along to check the children’s teeth. And they also brought a foot-powered sewing machine, with the promise that a Relief Society sister would soon be along to teach villagers how to sew.
“When we arrived, the children lined up on the left and right of the road, clapped their hands, and saluted us,” Brother Rehm said. “We played the same games, had the same fun, left with the same feelings.”
And, he noticed, the school was cleaner. The students all had shoes and proper clothing. And even though there were still some broken windows in need of repair, it seemed like there was a brighter, happier feeling in this place in the sun.