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Tx response spans border

BY SUSAN KIM | CIUDAD ACUNA, MEXICO | October 12, 1998

New partnerships between local Mexican churches, American churches and interfaith organizations are forming with the aim of getting help directly to Mexican residents in need.

During the two months since floods devastated the border Texas town of

Del Rio and caused substantial damage in its Mexican sister city, Ciudad

AcuŅa, Mexicans have rarely received donations intended for them.

Representatives from churches and disaster response organizations trying

to carry water, food, personal items, and building materials across the

border report they have been turned away. Or, worse, their shipments are

accepted by customs officials or border police but never get delivered to

flood survivors.

But a new partnership model, which pairs Mexican churches with nearby

American churches and others who want to help, aims to cut through the red

tape. The new partnerships, which will be overseen by an interfaith

umbrella committee, will enable Americans and Mexicansto work face-to-face.

American partners from churches and community organizations like the Lion's

Club will provide donated funds, then work with their Mexican counterparts

to buy supplies in Mexico, rather than shipping goods across the border.

"We were hearing awful stories about help never getting to those in dire

need," said David Barnhart, a disaster consultant for Presbyterian Disaster

Assistance. "A truck came from Oklahoma with tools to help AcuŅa residents

dig out and clean up, but the tools ended up with the police. Another

truckload of donated food got taken and used on a ranch as food for pigs.

Or donations are sold in the market to profit those who aren't really in

need."

Just hours after the floods last August, American Red Cross officials

were stopped at the border as they drove three 18-wheelers full of water to

AcuŅa. "We ended up working with the Mexican consulate all day trying to

get it through," said Jane Pratt, manager of the Red Cross Service Center

in Del Rio.

Shortly after the floods, representatives from the Church of Jesus

Christ of the Latter Day Saints delivered foam pads, powdered milk, canned

goods, and tents -- one of few reports of successful deliveries. "I think,

that time at least, we were able to get equal deliveries on both sides of

the border," said Patrick Reese, disaster response specialist for Church of

Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints Welfare Services.

The Rev. John Feierabend, president of the Bethel Center and pastor at

Grace Lutheran Church in Del Rio, said he has seen more failure than

success in delivering goods to Mexicans in need. "Local individuals who

have relatives or friends in AcuŅa may take a bag of beans or a bag or rice

across the border. But when you try to take a truckload across, you get

stopped."

The Rev. Gary Martin from Iglesia Luterana Cristo el Salvador compared

the situation with Mexico to that of trying to send food and donations to

Russia in the aftermath of government collapse. "In both places, when the

U.S. or other countries try to send donated goods, they face high taxes and

difficulties at the border. Especially over the past two years, it's been

getting tougher and tougher."

Even when goods are successfully delivered across the border, often the

drivers are required to remain at a single distribution point, which means

that elderly and disabled individuals -- often those most in need -- can't

access the help.

"The issue is that when you try to bring things across the border, they

don't go directly to the people in need," said Bernard. "So now we're going

to cross the border to work directly within the community. Rather than say

'how can we help you,' we'll say 'how can we work with you?' We're

essentially going directly to the front door of those in need."

Although flood damages in AcuŅa were not as severe as in Del Rio, the

community was struggling economically before the floods, and the raging

waters killed dozens of people. Recovery workers have identified three

major needs: mattresses and bed frames, children's shoes, and roofing

materials, especially plastic laminate to cover corrugated cardboard homes.

New partnerships will begin delivering mattresses and other goods as

soon as next weekend, said Norm Hein, disaster response facilitator for the

Church World Service. "This is a way of bridging the border. We can start

distributing funds immediately. Everything is a go."

Church World Service has already authorized $5,000 to be distributed

among partnerships who want to buy mattresses and other goods.

Potential partnerships will be organized by groups such as the Church of

Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Mennonite Disaster Services,

Lutheran Disaster Response, Church World Service, United Methodist

Committee on Relief, Catholic Social Services, and Lion's Club. Many local

churches will lead partnerships as well. An interfaith disaster response

entity, Del Rio Recovers, is also helping to put partnering churches and

organizations in touch.

Barnhart said that he hopes the new partnerships will strengthen

Mexican- American relationships long after flood recovery is accomplished.

"The larger community will come to realize it can tap Mexican churches as a

resource. So there is a strong missionary component here, too."


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