Transcript of conversation between the Dean and Beth Beall, ED of Vida Joven. Passages in Spanish have been omitted.
Penny: Hello St. Paul’s. This week, it’s my pleasure to have a chat with Beth Beall who’s the executive director of Vida Joven. And because we haven’t talked about Vida Joven in some time at the cathedral, I thought it would be good for you to hear something about what they’re doing and who they are. So, Beth, please start by introducing yourself.
Beth: You bet. So as Penny said, I’m the executive director of Vida Joven. I’m at the orphanage and its acoustics are not great. And you can see I’m wearing a hat today. It’s very cold inside. We don’t have heat here. So I’ve been with Vida Joven since late 2013. And I am the bridge between our US side and our Mexico side, meaning that I actually live in Mexico now and I’m here with the orphanage a few days a week; and my job is to bring the kids to the donors, bring the donors to the kids, and help more and more people get involved with caring for these children.
Penny: Tell us a little bit about the history. How did Vida Joven start and what’s its mission?
Beth: At the heart of Vida Joven’ mission is the mandate to rescue children from danger. So Vida Joven began back in the mid 90s. Because children – the dangerous circumstances they were in, specifically they were kids living in a prison, which is right across the street from where we currently rent this facility. Kids were in there. And this whole thing was envisioned as a place that would be a temporary, safe home for children who were living inside the prison. It was an adult prison, but largely because of issues of economics and poverty. It was often the father who would go into prison, but then the mother had no way to support her children. So mothers and children moved into the prison to stay with the fathers. And at one point, there were over 500 children in this adult maximum security prison.
So we started as a place to provide temporary safe refuge for kids that were living in that kind of danger. It was all voluntary. The vision was that they would just be here a short time until Dad got out or until Mom was able to support the family. That changed in the mid 2000s. Kids were no longer allowed to live in the prison. And now we serve predominantly abandoned and abused children that come to the orphanage through social services. So we are an arm of social services now.
Penny: And today, what’s the status of Vida Joven today? How do you operate today?
Beth: On the Mexico side, we are recognized as an agency of social services. So a child will be rescued from an abusive situation or perhaps a child is found on the streets. The first thing is that they go to the children’s shelter in Tijuana. Once it’s determined that there are no family members available or willing to take care of the children, then we are one of many orphanages that will get a call saying Do you have room for one more child? So that’s how kids come to us. What happens on the ground is that there’s a staff of 14 here at the orphanage. Our ideal number of kids is about 20 to 25 kids, given the size of our current facility, and 14 staff, none of whom live here and they work different shifts. So 14 aren’t here at one time.
And then on the US side, essentially we are a foster care home. But that’s not a term here in Mexico. So they’re called orphanages, but there’s no infrastructure here to provide for these kids. So even though we are under the auspices of social services, we do not receive funding except for the occasional check that we get from the government and it becomes a photo op for the government. So on the US side, we have this growing circle of people who reach out, who care for the children with financial donations; that money gets wired here every month. And the staff here oversee how the funds get used.
Penny: So the US side is the foundation, the support side. And I think there are people who kind of adopt, so to speak, or sponsor individual children. You mentioned that your job is bringing the donors and the children together. And I know it’s in Tijuana. Right. So it’s not very far into Mexico. Isn’t there a way for people to actually visit when we don’t have a pandemic?
Beth: That’s right. When the pandemic is over, we will resume our monthly trips. We do one to two trips a month. And we make it really easy for people and that’s the best way for people to get involved with the kids, to actually come and see them. We drive in a 15 passenger van from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Chula Vista. We all drive together and arrive together. They are Saturday morning visits. And I would love to have more St. Paul’s people get involved with that. We have an email newsletter that goes out on our website. And those will be the two ways in which we let people know when our trips are started. Again, I don’t see us having any trips at least before the fall. We have not had any visitors since the end of last February because of the pandemic. And it’s really hard for the kids: the kids have not left the orphanage since last March. So they have been cooped up here. And they are very ready to have visitors again.
Penny: I can imagine that! The house that they live in, the orphanage itself is very urban, it’s got a small yard. There isn’t that much room to run around. And there are many kids in a bedroom. So it’s pretty constrained. Is there still a plan hopefully to move out of the city of Tijuana?
Beth: There is still a plan. And I am remiss in not communicating better about what’s happening. Well, the truth is that there’s not a lot happening, although we continue to try very hard. We thought we had the ideal property located in Rosarito back in 2018. That fell apart; we’ve since had other things fall apart. Our most recent visit was to go see another property down in Rosarito just last week. And it’s promising. So we’re going to follow up, we are getting a technical study on that. And a contractor, the central man who’s the head of our property committee on the US side is going to drive down and see it hopefully next week. So we are trying, that speaks a little bit – speaks largely actually – to the hopes and dreams of Vida Joven for the future.
We want to serve the children we have better. And we would love to be able to serve more kids. Serving these children better means realizing that where we are now the total property is about 4000 square feet of space: that includes indoors and outdoors. And there’s about 2000 square feet of living space. So when we are full with up to 25 kids, it’s really tiny. There’s only pavement to play upon. As you said it’s a business area and urban and heavy traffic, there’s eight lanes of traffic outside the front door here. So the kids stay inside a lot. So we would like to serve these kids better by giving them more space.
The thing that all these kids have in common is that they live with a lot of trauma. And that comes out in a variety of ways. And it affects all of them differently, but they need space, they need to be able to run around, they need to be able to let energy out. So we want to serve these kids better by giving them more space; we also want to be able to serve more kids. I don’t know exactly what that number would be. But if we could serve 50 Kids instead of 25, right, that would be tremendous. So the hope and dream for the future is that we will eventually get land, we just had no idea how hard it would be. That’s part of why it’s taken so long: legally here things get very complicated. But one of the things I want your folks and donors to know is that we have a top rate attorney who’s on our side here in Tijuana, who will not let us put a penny on the table or sign anything until everything has been verified. And that’s what’s gotten us messed up in the past. Titles are a tricky business here. But these kids need more space. We’re going to get there one day.
Penny: It’s a wonderful dream. And I’m so glad that you’re able to tap into professional resources to help with that. I would love for you to tell us about a couple of the children. Are there a couple of success stories you could share with us?
Beth: Absolutely. Yeah. So two groups come to mind. One is, we have many sibling groups here. And I’ll quickly tell you about one sibling group of four kids. Their names are Carla, Deanna, Danielle, who I hope you’ll meet in a moment and Myra. These kids very much exemplified the reason that Vida Joven exists. Now, as I said, we serve predominantly abandoned children. So when Carla was (she’s the oldest) when she was just seven years old, Mom and Dad left home one day, both drug addicts and never came back. And so these kids were on their own. A neighbor saw Karla trying to get food for her siblings out on the street and that neighbor called social services. So that was seven, almost eight years ago. Carla’s now 14. And the parents have never come looking for them. We have no expectation that the parents will ever come back. So the kids really have no place else to go. The good thing is that they’re all able to live together here at Vida Joven. And the plan is that they will continue to grow up here. They all care about the school.
The children legally have the right to have an attorney. So a couple years ago, they were asking questions about their parents. And so we took them to meet with an attorney at social services. And that attorney said you know, your parents, it’s really unlikely that they will come back. If you want, we can put you into the adoption system in the country of Mexico, but you will likely be separated. They decided Nope. We want to stay at Vida Joven. And Carla was saying to me just the other day again, she said, you know, Beth, my attorney said that I could get adopted if I want, but I want to stay here, this is my family. So that gets to the heart of what Vida Joven does, right, that these kids weren’t, they were in danger living on their own with the oldest one seven, you know, trying to find food. God knows where they would have ended up. And we’re really glad that they ended up here.
Another story that comes to mind is Chaeto, who’s was born to a drug addicted mom. And this little girl was almost killed at a young age, went into social services, social services found a relative to take care of her, but those relatives didn’t know how to take care of her. And when we finally got her she was over three years old and wasn’t eating, wasn’t talking, wasn’t walking. And so a lot of rehabilitation took place, we took her to occupational therapy and physical therapy, and now she’s going to a private school for special needs kids. So for me, these are the success stories. These are kids who don’t have anywhere else to go, and they are getting everything they need here. And it’s a really long road with starts and stops every day. But thank God they’re here. So because again, there’s just simply not an infrastructure in this country to take care of these kids. So we’re really grateful for people, the charitable love and contributions that make this a possibility for these kids.
Penny: When the state fails, the church steps in. Vida Joven was started as a church effort and the cathedral. took it on under my predecessor. So it’s part of the diocese now. And you mentioned several girls, there are boys there, too, right?
Beth: We do have boys, but not as many. That was strategic at one point, because early on, we had teenage boys and teenage girls, this was before my time, and teenage boys and teenage girls were doing things that teenage girls will do. So the decision was made to focus on girls, and we will take boys if they’re part of a sibling group with girls who are coming in. But again, that was that was a while ago. We have since said that once we eventually buy and move to our new property, we’re open to having more boys. I mean, we’re open to reconsidering that, because hopefully, we’ll have enough space that we can provide more separation in the dormitories between girls and boys. But for now we only have two boys here.
Penny: Did you say we could meet one or two of the children?
Beth: Yes. I’m gonna go find them and hopefully they’ll say more than Hi. So just a moment. Okay. So I’ve got a row of a few kids here. And so this is Carolina. Carolina is in middle school and has been here for eight years. Rosario is good friends with Dorothy Curry from the cathedral. This is Maria. Maria has been here for just a couple years; and then Antonela, a good buddy of Joan Ford. Sometimes this happens. It is exciting to see kids get to talk on video, but when they’re actually in front of the camera, they get a little shell-shocked.
Penny: It’s wonderful just for people to see that there are actual children there. Do any of them have an idea of what they’d like to do after they finish school?
Beth: Okay, so Carolina said an astronaut. Chaeto says she likes to act in plays. The private school she goes to – which is again the school for special needs kids – they do phenomenal plays and musical plays. Maria thinks she’d like to be a police officer. Antonela says model, artist, and martial arts. Take another look at Antonella. I like to describe her as the future president of the universe
Penny: Okay, so these these kids have big dreams. And I think you have at least one child who’s going to college is that right?
Beth: So we have one who will be going to college next fall. We have a young woman who’s outside right now, who grew up here. She went on to college, an now one of her part time jobs is that she does exercise classes with the kids, she studied physiology. And it’s phenomenal. Great during the pandemic, to have someone do exercise classes with the kids. About half a dozen I believe kids have gone on to college. And now we have had one since 2013. We just have this one girl who will start next year and go to college. Because it’s not unheard of that we have kids, they get to high school and then they run away and want to find their families and it doesn’t end well. So we’re really delighted that now we have one who’s wanting to head to college. And not only are we happy for us and for her but for the other kids that they are seeing one of their peers go to college. Yes, we have more coming up. We have an 11th grader, we have a ninth grader. So there’ll be more in the future that people will hear about.
Penny: Okay, wonderful. So the last question I have for you is: how can we help?
***Beth: Once visits open up again, please visit. I say to people when we do our visits that your goal in visiting is to give these kids love and attention that they crave. Every single one of them that you’ve talked with today, these kids know what it feels like to enter the world and have the world reject you. And they get lots of love here at Vida Joven, but they all have tremendous deficits of love in their heart. So, to show up and to give these kids love, it’s never enough. We would really appreciate it if you’d remember the kids in your prayers because of course, what we pray for is what we what we live into. And so to pray for these kids is to remember that there are children who: the world has been a very hard edged place for them, and to hold them in your very gentle hearts is significant work. And also, of course, I keep saying we need financial donations, because it’s like a family here. And families need income in order to buy the groceries, in order to pay for the doctor visits, in order to pay the school fees. So everything that you think about when you think about raising kids, that’s why your gifts are needed. Because you’re making a good home, you’re making a gift to help raise a child who doesn’t otherwise have a family to raise them. So visits, prayers, and donations.
Penny: Visits, prayers and donations, and what’s the name of the website for people to get more information?
Beth: It’s the whole name of the organization, which is VidajovendeMexico.org.
Penny: Thank you so much, Beth. It’s just lovely for me to see glimpses of the home; I haven’t been there in so long. And thank you for the work you do. I hope that that this will yield more interest among Cathedral folks and that you’ll be hearing from people and that they will be clamoring for visits as soon as we’re allowed to come.
Beth: Thank you. Thanks for the continued care of the cathedral. You guys have been such a significant part of this family story. So thank you.
Penny: Okay, I’m going to sign off now for our Cathedral viewers, and I hope this has been helpful and interesting for you, and I’ll see you on Sunday.