High in the mountains north of Oaxaca, Mexico, the small town of Santiago Tenango consists of small cinderblock homes lining gravel roads that spiderweb out, following the ridgelines of the hills. It’s an isolated, quiet, rural area with few services and a high level of poverty.
A year ago, most of the residents would have said it was a town marked by disunity. No one could quite put a finger on the cause for the lack of community: It wasn’t politics, or religion or family feud. It seemed like no one got along. As one observer said, “There was a lot of fighting.”
But that was before the shoes.
Before the food.
Before the life skills classes.
Before they discovered a purpose to gather and built a place to do it.
Before Buckner came to town.
Resident Noemí Olivera Castellano remembers the day life began to change for the community, the day shoes donated through Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls® arrived.
“One afternoon, we gathered when Pastor Marcos (Castellanos) called us all. He told us they needed 150 children the next day. We finally got everyone to agree to come, after visiting all afternoon and part of the night with parents, telling them they were going to give shoes to the children.”
The shoe distribution was a catalyst, said Buckner Mexico Project Coordinator Lidia Juan Chimal. “We came to the community of Tenango a year ago and made a preliminary assessment of the community needs. We wanted to host an event and invite the volunteers who help us to give away shoes to children of the community. “It marked the first time the whole town gathered in one space. Some people did not want to come because they thought it was a church event and they would be asked to come to church.”
Even though Castellanos helped spearhead attendance efforts, he kept the emphasis on families’ need for aid.
“Our purpose here is to serve God by helping people. My family is also involved in helping people,” he said. “My wife and my two sons also serve. But we do take that role of shepherding, of caring for the flock and trying to bring more people to God. We now are sharing material things with them. It helps us show people what God is really like, not only the spiritual part, but also the physical and the material.”
Many, including Maria Gomez, were skeptical of the offer. Promises from government agencies and NGOs for aid are not often kept. But the shoe distribution was followed by distributions of MannaPack food packages. Then workshops.
“After the shoe giveaway, the people of the community were very interested in what else could be done,” Chimal said. “We worked hard in the community not only to provide material things for the people and to resolve some problems, but we equipped a team to help the community.”
The Buckner workshops also marked a shift in the community’s feelings for each other – and the start of a community building that would welcome all.
“We did not have a place with a covering,” Gomez said. “A shaded area that can be used here in the community. The people now have a network of friends here. They have learned to work with each other and to share with one another.
“We now hear the testimony of several families that what Buckner Mexico has in this community has made a great impact on their lives because they remember that special day and they say, ‘Family, do not look for me at home today. In the afternoon I will be at Buckner, and I’m going there to participate in my workshops.’ It has become that space to share, to play and to have fun. Families no longer have to dedicate themselves to television or, sometimes, fighting.”