Three days’ work in the arid hills of Baja, California, southeast of Tijuana, on the way to Tecate, along a dirt road on a little piece of land: Mix the concrete, pour the slab. Frame the walls and raise the roof. Use only hand tools: picks, saws, hammers. Help a family build a simple home. The labor will leave muscles aching. Expect nicks and bruises.
But the days will fill the hearts of the builders with joy. And the chance to build has brought James Reites, S.J., MST ’71 and more than 1,000 students and alumni on trips to build houses in Mexico in the past dozen years or so. “We’re getting to be old pros at it now,” he says.
The trips serve as an annual reunion for some young alumni—including veterans of the three SCU Solar Decathlon Teams. Avowedly non-engineers Katherine Nicholson ’10 and younger sister Jenny Nicholson ’12 first pounded nails and sawed two-by-fours with the project during their first year of college. They’ve come back again and again. In fact, Katherine—who works at Facebook as part of the academic relations team—has taken on organizational duties for much of the trip for several years. She credits the eldest sister in the family, Andrea Nicholson McCandless ’07, for getting her involved initially.
Reites organized the inaugural trip for students when he was faculty director-in-residence in Xavier Residential Learning Community, in SCU’s McLaughlin Hall, which drew students interested in the theme of global solidarity. Reites figured, What better way to understand solidarity than through an immersion trip? So, at Christmastime, he led a group of students to Baja to build, with house plans and materials provided by the nonprofit organization Amor Ministries.
Last year, just before Thanksgiving, a crew of a dozen Santa Clara grads and staff went on the trip. It was a first for two of them: engineer Amanda Laufer ’15 and photographer Chuck Barry, who served as University photographer for more than a quarter century. When he wasn’t taking photos for us, he set aside his camera and joined the crew. Observation: Using a handsaw to cut a two-by-four that hasn’t been kiln dried ain’t easy; the wood is heavy, dense, and wet. “I’ve done hard work,” he says. “I grew up doing hard work. This was some seriously hard work.”
Comes the time when the house is nearly complete. In a ceremony in which the keys are turned over to the owner, the builders present hopes and prayers they have written on little pieces of paper, to be stuccoed into the wall. Such as: “May this home be filled with nothing but good will and joy and no strife.”