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03-19-03: Local Rotaries reach out in Mexico
The Daily Standard
    These kids really do walk several hours to school. For some, it's a four-hour uphill trip in plastic sandals.
    The 70-plus students attending school in the small village of Rejogochi, Mexico, are Tarahumara Indians living in the Copper Canyon area. They journey to school from all directions at the beginning of each week, stay over each day, then make the long walk back home on the weekends.
    A committee of Rotary Club members from Mercer and Auglaize counties visited the Copper Canyon area in February, on a mission aimed at helping the plighted Tarahumara Indians.
    "The teachers made comments like 'why are you helping us, we don't even know you?' "Celina resident Paul Wilken said, outlining the trip to fellow Rotarians at a Tuesday meeting. "With not much effort and not much money, we can make a huge difference in their lives."
    The Tarahumaras are a very poor, old culture that is often discriminated against even by other Mexico natives, Celina Rotary Club President Julie Fleck said in an interview with The Daily Standard.
    In Copper Canyon, which encompasses a large area several hours south of El Paso, Texas, the Rotary team visited three medical clinics and the school.
    More than 50 years ago, a Catholic Jesuit priest named Luis Verplancken, began his mission to assist the Tarahumaras. His program grew, providing clinics and the school. Father Luis, (as he's known) is still involved, alongside an ever-changing crew of Jesuit volunteers and teachers.
    Wilken and Fleck joined other Rotarians from the Celina, Wapakoneta, St. Marys and New Bremen/New Knoxville clubs to make the trip. The goal is to create an on going international mission for the clubs.
    Members in Celina have been researching the Tarahumaras and planning the first trip for more than two years. It all came together very quickly, Fleck said. A donated ambulance was secured, it was packed to the roof with medical supplies and two Rotarians headed out for El Paso, while several others hopped a flight to meet the ambulance there.
    Several in this international committee were working ahead of time to secure permission to bring the ambulance across the boarder into the village of San Juanito. Even with one Rotarian gaining contact with Mexican President Vicente Fox's office to appeal for special approval, the ambulance was not allowed to cross into Mexico and it was put in storage in El Paso.
    "Don't ask me to try and explain that," Wilken said. "It doesn't make sense, but you just can't look at it that way."
    Fleck said a combination of "red tape" procedures required by the country and problems with local authorities prevented safe passage of the ambulance. While the new president is making efforts to make Mexico more friendly to outside benevolence, presidential rule changes are not often carried out by local authorities.
    Wilken told fellow Rotarians on Tuesday that he heard some shipments took 14 months to get approval to enter the country. Some agencies attempting to donate food have had it spoil in storage in El Paso while "jumping through hoops" for Mexican authorities.
    The ambulance now sits in a storage facility in El Paso filled with mounds of routine first aid items and other medical equipment, such as an ultrasound, eye care kits and gurneys.
    The items were specifically packed to meet the needs of the clinics the group visited. An American volunteer in Copper Canyon, Sandy Brown, acted as a tour guide and translator for the group. She helped compile the list of medical needs and continues to stay in e-mail contact with group, working to bring the ambulance across the boarder.
    When visiting the school, Rotarians brought massive amount of rulers, scissors, paper and other school supplies for the classes.
    Janet White, a Rotary member and nurse with Mercer County Community Hospital, assessed  needs and procedures used at the clinics and school. Many in the group were surprised to find the teachers had a lack of basic first-aid knowledge.
    White said Tuesday that one child was infected with tuberculosis, and no one there fully realized the implications of the seriously contagious and deadly disease. Since the trip, several other children were suspected of contracting TB, she said. The clinics lacked supplies and medical expertise; surgeries cannot be performed unless an American surgeon is called in.
    In the coming weeks, the international committee that took the trip will give presentations to each of the four clubs involved, with hopes all four will agreed to continue efforts to assist the Tarahumara.
    Fleck said the committee applied for a $10,000 well-digging grant from the district Rotary board, which stretches to Toledo. If approved, the money could be used as leverage to apply for a larger grant from Rotary International.
    "We're not talking about changing their culture, it's about making their life a little easier, and healthier," Wilken said.


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