Students Reach Hands, Hearts Across Border


Last week, students from the tiny mountain towns of Pine and Strawberry left the comfort and security of their homes to spend a week living with families in Cucurpe, Sonora, Mexico.

Twelve sixth-graders, three seventh-grade ambassadors and eight adult chaperones in the Hands Across the Border program drove out of the Arizona mountains and down to the desert floor in Mexico.

Reaching their hands across the border, their hearts and minds soon followed. On the way, the students chatted excitedly about the adventure that beckoned them across the border.

"If I went there, and I saw what the living conditions were, I think I'd appreciate what I have right now," 12-year-old Parker Jamison speculated.

"It would be fun and exciting to do something different in another country," his schoolmate Kaycee Pugel said. "You get to live in someone else's home and see how they live and how they eat and how they do different things than we do."

More than 40 miles southeast of Nogales, Cucurpe is a 400-year-old village founded by Father Kino. From a distance, the town looks like a tiny concrete outcropping on the east bank of the San Miguel River.

The red brick schoolhouse, ornate Town Hall and simple medical clinic are clustered along the village's main street, which is less than a mile long.

From the community center, the town extends five blocks up hill to the east. Steep concrete roads lead to more concrete houses with swept dirt yards.

While in Cucurpe, the students and their chaperones lived with host families. The things the students saw and the way they lived while they were in Mexico provided them with cultural treasures to take home.

By day, the students and their Cucurpe partners spent most of their time visiting the school, the ball field or one of the two playgrounds as a group. Together they saw petroglyphs, hiked to small rivers, played basketball, volleyball and baseball. Some of the students even rode horses.

At night, however, the students were alone isolated as the only English speakers in non-English speaking families.

"Being stuck at night when I didn't know how to speak the language (was the worst)," 12-year-old Seth Draper said.

Seth tried to use hand signals to communicate. His hosts understood his signs for "hungry" and "sleep," but not "play."

"Play was the worst they had no idea what I was saying," he said.

Despite the language barrier, the American students learned a common lesson -- an appreciation for how good they have it at home. It was an eye-opener for the students, who realized for the first time how little some people have.

"Just the necessities like heat at night," Seth said. "They just threw on heavy blankets to keep warm at night because they had no heat."

Homes are built of adobe and concrete and generally roofed with corrugated tin and 2 x 4s. Wood stoves are the most common source of heat for the villagers, but in the desert, wood is scarce.

"(We) got to live in someone else's home, see how they live, how they eat and how they do different things than we do," Kaycee said. "They don't use silverware a lot and they'd be outside a lot."

Kaycee stayed in a one-room house about the size of a two-car garage with her partner Yadhira, her younger brother, Jorda, and their parents.

With only two beds in the home, the family pulled two couches together at night for Yadhira and Jorda to sleep on and graciously gave Kaycee one of the beds.

Generosity was common among the people of Cucurpe, who welcomed the children of Pine-Strawberry with warm hospitality.

"(Angel's) family doesn't have a lot of money but he bought me a Coke and a snack anyway," 12-year-old Sierra Sommars said. "(Angel's cousin) had to go wash clothes at her grandmother's house."

To Sierra's surprise the family washed their clothes in the river.

"I thought it was pretty amazing," she said, "because we have a washer."

But for 12-year-old Shara Kline, living without a bathroom was the tough part of the trip. "So many beans and no bathroom," she said.

Nevertheless, Shara quickly became fond of her hosts and decided she wants to go back.

"They washed my clothes by hand," she said. "I just came home and asked, 'Where are my pajamas?' They were out on the line all clean," she said, smiling.

What started with handshakes Monday night ended with hugs and good-byes Friday morning. The American students were all changed a little.

"She looked at me and she just glowed," Shara's mom, Becky, said.

"All the people smile at you," Shara told her mother. "Mom, I can't get this smile out of my head."

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