Guest Columns

SMITH: ‘INVEST IN SOMETHING GREATER THAN YOURSELF’

Three little Colorado non-profits build personal, political relationships with Mexico

GUEST COLUMNIST

Now that preparations are beginning for Governor John Hickenlooper’s June trip to Mexico, it’s worth looking at the importance of building relationships there — relationships with your business partners if you’re a company but also relationships with other countries or regions if you’re a state like Colorado. Colorado has worked hard on this with Mexico, its second largest export market, and has had strong leadership from the Governor. There are three little-known Colorado non-profits, however, that have been critical to this relationship for more than two decades.

The first is Ipoderac, an orphanage located close to the city of Puebla. Coloradan Jim Polsfut became involved in 1992 when he was working in Mexico City and built support in Colorado through attorney Jim Bye and the Cordillera Foundation; oilman and philanthropist Frederic Mayer, whose family foundation improved much of the infrastructure; Frederick’s son, Rick; Peter Konrad, the executive director of the Mayer’s foundation who subsequently initiated the formation of a U.S. non-profit, the Ipoderac Children’s Fund; Mary Buckley, Director of Education Partnerships at DIA, who first went in 2001 and has been back twelve times via her connections with the Montview Presbyterian Church; August Ritter, who spent almost a year at Ipoderac as a volunteer; and Dave Ferrill with the LoDo Rotary Club.

Today there are 72 boys living there, boys who had been living on the streets or abandoned by their families. One goal is to teach them work skills so they all help with the production of cheese and goat milk soap. This, in turn, provides 70 percent of Ipoderac’s operating costs, a staggering accomplishment for a non-profit. Now the board is considering opening a facility for girls on the other side of Puebla.

The second non-profit is Missions Ministries headquartered in Castle Rock. I learned about it by chance in June 2012 when I spotted a white van with Colorado plates at the Santa Teresa border crossing just west of Juárez, Mexico. The driver was John Ortmann, an engineer in the aerospace industry and the leader of a Missions Ministries project to build houses in Juárez. Missions Ministries was founded in 1992 by Ed and Carol Bullis from Littleton; since then its volunteers have built about 800 homes and 15 churches in the Juárez area, established two libraries and renovated a small gymnasium. They also manage a health clinic, help students with school costs and bring medical and dental missions.

Kevin Centola — wearing a lanyard — and his Colorado team at the Tree of Life Orphanage in Juarez, Mexico.

In March 2013, I joined their group of 42 volunteers — men, women and children — from Colorado, Arizona and California and, aided by their on-site work force, built two houses in two days.

John Ortmann, left, Missions Ministries team leader, poses with two volunteers.

One volunteer, Quinn Anderson first visited in 2007 and was immediately shocked by the high rate of infant mortality in that area. Often parents wouldn’t give their children names until they were six months old because so many would die before then. So she created Babies of Juárez, which provides diapers and formula and has already seen changes in the health of the babies there.

Coloradan Jim Polsfut with one of the residents of Ipoderac orphanage.

The third non-profit is Tree of Life. Kevin Centola, a fireman at West Metro Fire Rescue was visiting family in El Paso in 1999 when he was invited to play soccer at an orphanage in Juárez. He remembered two things from that experience: a young orphan praying that the Americans would keep coming back and the way a number of the children held onto him as he was leaving.


An adobe kiln near Missions Ministries’ house building worksite.
Photos by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

“I told them I would be back,” he says. “Sitting in the traffic line at the border, I pondered all the broken promises these children had had and remembered the promise I had made. It did not seem right to be part of a child’s life built on broken promises. So here I am.”

In the subsequent 14 years, he has visited 30 to 35 times, taken about 25 teams down to do maintenance on the facilities and raised close to $200,000. His belief is that “you should invest in something greater than yourself, something that will outlive you.” Kevin has a core group of about 20 volunteers, all of whom have been to Juárez at least 10 times.

In Mexico, the level of poverty, the near-total lack of governmental assistance and the physical danger in places like Juárez make the work of these volunteers unique. Their persistence is a great credit to Colorado and an example of the importance of building relationships.

Morgan Smith is the former Director of the Colorado International Trade Office and a member of Governor Hickenlooper’s Trade and Tourism Ambassador Program. He travels to the Mexican border at least once a month to write about and work with humanitarian programs there. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.

See the March 28 print edition for full photo coverage.