Tiny miracles, Malibu group builds homes in Baja Mexico for families in need

The volunteer work crew from Malibu Pacific Church poses beside the house they just built in Tecate, Mexico in one weekend. (From left to right) Eva Melikian, Heather VanRheenen, Derek VanRheenen. Wailani O’Herlihy, Darcy O’herlihy, Andy VomSteeg, Terrelle Sales, Porsha Sales, Kevin Iga, Ryan Yates, Tyler Melikian. (Botton row) Andre and Tamyra Melikian. Photos courtesy of Pastor Andy VomSteeg.

Just like an old-fashioned Amish barn-raising, where the Amish band together to build a barn for a neighbor in one day, a couple dozen volunteers from Malibu Pacific Church (MPC) travel to poor towns in Baja Mexico twice a year to build a home for a destitute family over one weekend.

The dirt-poor conditions of people living in cities like Tecate and Tijuana are a real eye-opener for first-time volunteers. Last month, on MPC’s most recent construction venture, a home was built in Tecate for a single mother with a young daughter. The two had been living in a one-room shack with three walls — the fourth wall and roof were plastic sheeting — with a dirt floor and no electricity.

“It’s a fantastic experience,” said MPC Pastor Andy VomSteeg, “because it’s great to serve, and it’s not about you … I love the generosity of the people and the church; and it’s really emotional to hand the key to the house over to the family at the end.”

On each house-building excursion, the group of volunteers from Malibu drive to a meeting point in San Diego; and then cross the border into Mexico in a caravan. 

“We get there on Saturday, and go home on Sunday,” Malibu realtor Wailani O’Herlihy said. Volunteers bring some of their own food, and either stay overnight in a motel or camp out.

Malibu Pacific Church has been organizing house-building trips to Mexico for over 25 years. The church coordinates with Baja Christian Ministries, a group that identifies destitute families in need of homes in Tijuana, Rosarito Beach and Tecate. MPC then pays Baja about $10,000 per house, which covers site preparation, building materials, trip insurance, latrine, and administration.

“The original shack has been torn down and a concrete slab foundation has been poured by the time we volunteers get there,” O’Herlihy explained. “Over the two days, we do the framing, siding, electrical wiring, roofing, exterior painting, drywall, and an exterior bathroom. We put lights on the outside of the house, and a front door with a lock.”

The Baja organization provides construction supervision over the building of the cookie-cutter 16- by 20-foot weatherproof home with three rooms and a loft. They say the homes are “Durable, efficiently designed, and serve families for many years. Multiple rooms give the family needed privacy and dignity.”

MPC donates two beds, a dining table and a cooking stove for each home they build; and also bring food donations for local families like bags of rice, vegetables, and flour; along with cleaning supplies.

O’Herlihy took her 12-year-old nephew Darcy O’Herlihy on last month’s trip, which turned out to be a positive experience. Wailani O’Herlihy said it’s good for Malibu kids to see how other people live.

“I’ve been doing this for many years, and I took all three of my kids on these trips to learn,” she said. “My kids are grown now, but once you give to other people, it blesses you and you want to keep giving back.”

VomSteeg agreed with that sentiment. 

“It’s really a wake-up call and reminder of how grateful and blessed we all are for where we live,” he said. “The poverty there just hits you in the face. It’s very humbling … You come back changed. Kids say it’s the best thing they ever did.”

Malibu Pacific Church Operations Manager Chris Laubach has been bringing his own group of people to Baja to construct houses since 2009 — 12 pairs of fathers and sons from Loyola High School in downtown LA. They try to build a house right next to one the Malibu group is constructing when possible.

“We just built our 32nd house in 13 years,” Laubach recounted. His Loyola H.S. group tries to build four houses a year. 

“It brings hope to the poor and joy to those who build,” he continued. “It’s very transformational.”

The father-son teams experience extra benefits, according to Laubach.

”When fathers and sons work shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s good for the sons to see their dads being men for others,” Laubach explained. “Everybody loves it. Everybody is always so busy, that you don’t always have that quality father-son time together.”

Anyone interested in volunteering for one of Malibu Pacific Church’s home-building projects in Mexico can contact the church directly — volunteers don’t have to be church members.