In 1995, Wendy Johnson was living at lakeside when a young woman who came to clean her house asked if she had heard about the 15-year-old boy who had just hung himself – on his father’s birthday in San Juan Tecomatlan, one of lakeside’s most economically challenged villages, located 20 minutes from Ajijic.
For days, Johnson, a member of Little Chapel by the Lake, couldn’t stop thinking about this. Overcome with emotion, she set out to do something about it.
Johnson gathered together friends and members of the church to discuss what could be done. They proceeded to raise US$100 to buy food, household goods and medicine, which they delivered to the grieving, needy family.
“A month later, another tragedy occurred involving a father and son, also from San Juan Tecomatlan,” says Johnson. “On February 14, 1996, a fisherman’s mentally handicapped son was helping his father on a boat and fell into the lake. The father jumped in with his boots on to save his son. Since neither could swim, they both drowned. Tragically, the fisherman left behind a wife and seven children.”
Once again, Johnson and other church members raised money to buy food, household goods and medicine, which they delivered to the family every day for six weeks.
For over 25 years, Little Chapel’s San Juan Tecomatlan (SJT) Missions has been providing food, clothing, household items and other necessities to the village’s poorest of the poor.
After the drowning incident, I felt inspired to be part of SJT Missions,” Johnson says. “I approached the local Rotary, and they agreed to adopt a program that provided 3,000 life jackets to the registered fishermen of Lake Chapala.”
Another dedicated volunteer with SJT Missions is Tom Emmerson. He and his wife Donna moved to lakeside a year ago from Dallas, Texas. Shortly after, they attended services at the Little Chapel, and were hooked.
“One of the things we were looking for in a church was outreach,” says Emmerson. “Here, we found this beautiful church in Chula Vista with a great big mission.” Two weeks later, he jumped right in and was working alongside Johnson and meeting villagers.
Both he and Johnson focus their attention on the SJT Missions food distribution program. Emmerson helps distribute bags of staples to 35 families, which are delivered to San Juan Tecomatlan’s main church – staples such as tuna, beans, rice, salt, cooking oil and toilet paper. Johnson’s monthly task is ordering 35 bags of food from a warehouse in Chapala, to be delivered to the Little Chapel. From there, they are transported to the church in San Juan Tecomatlan. Anita, who was born and raised in the village, is on hand at the church on the first Tuesday of each month to receive the bags.
“Anita knows the neediest families,” says Johnson. “She chooses 35 recipients, such as elderly widows, abandoned children, the disabled and the gravely ill.”
Food distribution is only one part of SJT Missions. Education is another.
Says Emmerson, “Once kids from the village enter high school, they have to take a bus to Chapala. Because most families don’t have 18 pesos for the round-trip fare, only about ten percent of these kids go on to high school.”
This is where SJT Missions steps in. Incoming seniors who show the highest academic records are rewarded scholarships to cover their bus fares during their last year of high school.
SJT Missions’ other projects may include installing roofs, repairing walls, adding bathrooms and creating a more sanitary environment for children.
“Since we’ve been here we’ve seen as many as 15 volunteers helping out with SJT Missions,” says Emmerson. “Some transport folks to the health clinic in Chapala. Although healthcare in Mexico is free, if villagers can’t get to the clinic, healthcare doesn’t do any good.”
Emmerson continues: “I see people spending thousands of dollars going to developing nations in order to give back. I was one of those people. Witnessing the poverty in Guatemala, I cried for a week. Living at lakeside, you can drive 20 minutes down the lake and have that same experience. Entering into San Juan Tecomatlan, you get a completely different feel of the culture. Plus, you don’t have to wonder where your money and efforts are going. You can see it first hand, with positive results.”
Says Johnson, “Like Tom, many expats who move to lakeside are looking for ways to give back. Once they get involved with something like SJT Missions and see how these poor villagers live, they realize how fortunate they are. The experience can change their lives.”
She adds: “I feel very connected with the San Juan Tecomatlan community. Eleven years ago, my father, who was living in Chapala, became very sick. Fifty impoverished villagers offered to donate blood. They didn’t even know my father. That gesture deeply touched me, and it still does.”