Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Job Skills, Not Handouts for Mexican Tunnel Kids

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Job Skills, Not Handouts for Mexican Tunnel Kids

Article excerpt

BY day, Ricardo Garcia Rodriguez used the underground maze of drainage tunnels to get from Nogales, Sonora, to Nogales, Ariz., where he begged for food. By night, the 16-year-old runaway called the tunnels his home.

But thanks to a binational effort by community leaders in Arizona and Sonora, Ricardo may be leaving the tunnels for good and getting a job as a baker's apprentice.

"It's good they're here," Ricardo says of Mi Nueva Casa, or My New House, a nonprofit foundation to help tunnel kids. "If you want to work, they'll help you find a job. They help you learn how to live outside the tunnels."

Last year, a group of public officials, lawyers, clergy, and social service workers from both sides of the border formed Mi Nueva Casa as a response to local concern about the tunnel kids. With a $50,000 start-up grant from the Arizona Supreme Court's Juvenile Crime Reduction Fund, the group rented a house on the Mexican side of the border and hired Teresa Leal, a children's advocate from Nogales, Sonora, to run it.

Leal now spends her days being a surrogate mother to more than two-dozen tunnel kids who come to the house to eat, clean up, watch TV, talk, and help fix up the place. Ms. Leal says many of them, like Ricardo, want to leave the tunnels but don't know how.

"Lots of things have gone wrong in their lives," she says, "and it's hard for them to trust."

In just the few months the house has been open, Leal has gotten 15 kids into vocational training programs and several more back into regular school. She has obtained medical care for some tunnel dwellers -- including a pregnant 13-year-old -- and encouraged others to return to their families. She says she has encountered children as young as 5 living underground.

"We've done a lot of good already," says Dennis Miller, a Santa Cruz County manager and Mi Nueva Casa board member. …

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