Our VIP this month is Veronica Gomez Garcia – better known as “Vero”, or “Mama Vero” to the kids – she is the house mother of the Manos de Amor orphanage. If you thought bringing up a couple of children kept you occupied, think upon how busy she is with currently 29 to care for !
Vero, thank you so much for your time. Please tell us a bit about your background.
I was born in Guadalajara. I have eight siblings. When I was four years old there was a problem in the family – we were poor and there was alcoholism. My mother contacted an organization and then seven of us were taken to a casa hogar in Tepic. Afterwards, my parents got back on their feet and my father began working for Volkswagen, and he was sent to PV. They bought some land and built a small home and finally they brought all of us home from Tepic. We became a whole family again. I was ten when we came to PV and five years later I came to Bucerias.
Are your family still here?
My parents have both died. Only one of my sisters, Anna, is here. She lost her son when he was just 15 and I persuaded her to come and be the cook here at MdA and she’s been the cook for the past 7 years. There are three other siblings in PV but the rest went back to Guadalajara, that’s where their roots are.
Are you married, with children?
I have been separated for some years now. I have two children: Hugo is 26 and is a general practitioner doctor in La Penita, he would like to specialize in dermatology. Veronica is 21 and is studying to be a veterinarian, her father is a veterinarian. She lives in Compostela.
Do you live in this colonia?
No, in La Unidad. We built two houses there and when we separated he got one and I got the other. The second one was built more to my taste. The children lived with me.
Do you have any pets?
Yes, 3 dogs. I have had to put a limit or I would have many more !
Do you allow any pets here at MdA?
No, we can’t do that, they might mess on the floor, need cleaning up – it’s not so much the extra work but it’s for health and safety reasons. And then the kids would really miss them when they left.
You maintained contact with the casa hogar in Tepic
Yes, I kept returning there from the time I turned 15, I got my mother’s permission. I went during the summer months. I kept going until I finally married and I still continued to go there, I always wanted to go back and help. It felt good to be there. In fact when I was returned to PV I would cry.
You then started working.
I started working for SEP (Secretary of Public Education) and gave classes in the towns to the mothers who had children from babies to 4 years old, teaching them about loving and living together.
Then I worked for DIF (Government Social Welfare Department). I became the personal secretary to the DIF Presidenta (Always the wife of the Municipal President), and I had to take children to the casa hogar in Tepic or in PV. I started to think “why isn’t there a casa hogar here in Bucerias? ” I asked her to start one here or some kind of a home but she said it was not possible, there was insufficient time because the President is only in power for a 3 years period and then has to leave and everything is taken over by a different person.
But the idea had entered my heart and I talked with my friend Conchita and asked her to help me. I went to Tepic and worked in the office there, I was trusted, and I learned what needed to be done – to go to the Public Notary, put together the executive paperwork, how many people etc. Conchita and I and another friend Angelica did not have any money, not even one peso! But we put ourselves in God’s hand and He made all this possible. Someone gave us a very pretty bright blouse and we raffled it to pay for the executive paperwork. Working for the Preidenta I became involved with a lot of politics and one day they asked me if I would get involved in a campaign and run for office as Bucerias Delegada, and I said “ok” ! Everyone kept encouraging me. I really like politics, but I didn’t know I would have such responsibilities!
We know from the present delegado, Sr Tony, that there is a lot of work! It seems everyone goes to him with their problems.
Oh yes, it’s a lot of work – a lot, a lot ! And then people would say to me: ” Vero, don’t you want to do it again?” And I said: “No! I think someone else should do it, sit in this chair, so that they know what it’s like. So that they really know what is needed!” I was sub delegada from 2002 to 2005.
Veronica met Valiene Heckart when they belonged to a charity: Las Mujeres Unidas por Bahia de Banderas – The Women United for Banderas Bay. As a separate project, Valiene collected the left over food saved under refrigeration at the Los Pelicanos Resort and she and Veronica went up the arroyo to the poorer colonias to distribute the food to the children. Veronica also became President of that group and when that term of office ended, knew she wanted to proceed with the idea of an orphanage. She, Conchita and a couple of others asked Valiene for help. The planning began in 2003.
Valiene had already helped with a fundraiser for the Mujeres. She came up with the idea of Rhythm’n’Ribs and with her accounting background showed us how it would work. The first one was in February 2005. She, and volunteers from the local and visiting community, got it all going, little by little.
The definition of an orphan is someone whose parents are deceased or otherwise unable or unwilling to care for them. MdA takes in children caught up in many situations – they have generally been neglected or abused in some way. Veronica investigates to find out the background, to make sure that there is nobody else to care for them temporarily, that MdA is the best place for them – until such time as hopefully the family can get on their feet and take the child back. She has to liaise closely with DIF, the social welfare department, who have various rules and criteria that need to be me, even though DIF give no financial support.
You were already looking after children before the building was even started?
Yes! Once we had the AC, (registered charity), we rented a little house for three years. The AC was official on 13 April 2004. In 2005 we had our first RhythmnRibs and we bought the land! We worked for three years to try and put together money for the construction, 2.5 million pesos through fundraisers and donations and put it into the bank. We had asked the local government for support to build and they said we needed to have 1.5 million pesos, there was a deal where we put half the money in and then they would match the other half. We got that money together and gave it to them in 2007 and nine months later they told us they wouldn’t be able to do it ! They said we needed to have the title of our land put into the name of the Ayuntamiento (Municipal council, this changes every three years) and we said we cannot do that, so then they said then we cannot give you the money ! We asked and asked and finally got our money back – this all took a long time. They never helped us at any time.
Finally our ground breaking was on 24 January 2008 and it was almost done in one year. We couldn’t completely finish because we had no more money – it wasn’t finished on the inside – we still needed interior iron work, electricity for lights, doors – and we needed a floor. Then the architect Lupe Dipp wrote a letter saying she wanted to meet us. At that time she was building Los Arroyos Verdes. We raised a bit more money and she matched that, she brought in the builders and the materials and we shared the cost. It all became possible because of her help, and also Rotary locally and in Canada paid for the kitchen and laundry equipment. We opened the doors on the Day of the Children, 30 April 2009.
I understand a woman visited the area and contacted Valiene by email referring her to the international orphans charity Lifeline of Hope, and after extensive questionnaires a few years later another woman visited and reported back to them.
They decided they were going to pay our rent so we could add more to our construction and did this for two years. When we moved in here they came again and said we will continue to support you – what do you need? I said I needed employees! I have a lot of food, a lot of clothing, a lot of children – how am I going to do all this by myself? So they asked how many do you need and I said a minimum of three. And from 2009 to now they pay for the employees. They started by paying for three, and then five years later to now they pay for seven every month, I now have a total of ten. They come every year and ask me if I need more help and I would say yes and they would pay for it – right from the very beginning we sent them monthly reports on the children and copy invoices to show how the money was spent. I always thank God for them because if I didn’t have their support…
You have two committees for the successful operation of Manos de Amor?
Yes, the Associacion Civil comprised of Mexicans, and the Steering Committee who arrange the events and fundraising, these are mainly non Mexicans and are here during the winter season, October to March. And I am involved in both – I am cut up into many pieces! I have to oversee the children, the employees, the household and the events. I ask God to send someone to help me.
How much does it cost to run MdA?
It’s a minimum of 55,000 pesos every month, some months it’s more. If it wasn’t for the donations of – not just money – but also laundry detergent, soap, food supplies, we would have a really hard time.
Do you come here every day, 7 days a week? What is your average day like?
I don’t have an average day, I don’t have a schedule, but yes, I am here every day, generally 8 – 10 in the morning before I have to go to meetings, go out. Obviously I can plan if I have set meetings. So long as all the lady employees are here then I probably don’t come back till 2, but I’m always in and out, in and out. But if one lady is missing and all the children are here, I have to stay. In the mornings they go to school, so it’s easier. Of course all the ladies always have work to do, washing and cleaning, and the cook works the hardest of the lot ! Anna works 7 or 8 hours a day, the others 5 – 6 hours. And then I have the night guardian, she arrives at 8 m and leaves at 8 the next morning. I try and organize when I want to work with a particular child, for homework, and also when the psychologist comes I have to be here.
Only one night person?
Yes, that’s ok… we don’t have any room for any more! And if a child is sick then I take that child home with me so I can take care of him, I’d rather do that and look after him so that everyone can get some sleep.
Apart from meetings with DIF, with the teachers at the school, with your committees, you are also paying all the bills?
Well I used to have to stand in line at the bank… sometimes I almost forgot that the electric bill was due! But now thank goodness they are all paid online.
It is your responsibility to hire and fire employees?
Yes. Almost all the ones who come for a job comes because I know them personally, I know where they live. When a person comes and I don’t know her, and I don’t have a vacancy, I tell them if they want to work they can stay but it is for free – until there is a job available. I have a waiting list so if someone already working tells me in advance they are going to something, then I can use one of the people on the list. My ladies are all very good, they always let me know if they can’t come for whatever reason. They know it is very important not to let me down, not to let the children down.
Some of the children are brought to you by DIF, the social services department. Do they help with any money?
No, not at all, they don’t have any money.
Where is Angelito?
I had 6 or 7 children from DIF Ope.and couldn’t accept any more, we were full, and I didn’t accept children who were too young. DIF used to send children to Tepic or Vallarta. When DIF opened their orphanage in Valle, all the DIF children had to go there, we had David and Maria, and Angelito who had been with us for ten years, he was one of our first children when we had the little house. He is not an orphan but he was completely abandoned by his mother as soon as he was born. His grandmother and father took care of him then the grandmother died. The father still cared for him, and the neighbours would help for money, but then the father left and they didn’t want him so he ended up with DIF, who brought him to me. Who would help him? He’s a child with severe Down’s Syndrome, confined to a wheelchair, he cannot do anything for himself and needs full time care. We took him to therapy, to a language specialist and he developed a lot. We were all sad when DIF took him away.
Have you visited him? Is he ok?
Yes, I went just the once… I’d written to some regular visitors, Canadians , telling them he wasn’t here any more and when they came we went out to visit him – he was happy to see us. DIF asked me did the Canadians want to take Angelito, but they didn’t, they just wanted to see him and give him some gifts. My daughter wanted me to adopt Angelito! But I can’t because of all my work, he requires full time assistance.
What is the age range of the children here?
They are 2 to 14 years. We split the dormitories between boys and girls being 3 – 7 years, and 8 – 12 years, and then we have three who are almost 14 years. At 14 they are considered adolescents, they, the boys, have different ideas and we need to have a separate room for them. I have no problem with the girls! So we haven’t had any children here that reached 14 years of age and if we were to do so we would need to build, and that is our next project. There is land adjoining which of course would be ideal. We went to the owners who said yes, but now they say no they’re not selling.
So as you don’t have the accommodation for them, what happens when a boy reaches age 14?
We have to give them back to their family. We hope at that age coming from here he won’t suffer too much because now he has love, self-confidence – he won’t be like when he first arrived here. He won’t be able to work, but if we give him back he can continue to be schooled and we will continue to support him. He’ll live with the extended family – grandfather, aunt – everyone has an extended family. They may be poor and unable to give him education, but they all have family.
You went back to your Casa Hogar and helped – have any of the girls returned here?
Not yet because the girls that have been here since they were small so far haven’t left yet. The one we have had for the longest, since she was six, is now coming up to 13. There have been girls who came from DIF who left, but they’d only been with us just a few months. When we know the DIF children are going to be with us only a short period of time, probably only a year, and we can’t start a long term project with them for the future. We know children who come to us from families will be with us for a year or two and those children can see the difference in living from being with their family. They see how they can study and be content and happy here. This is what we do for the children and their future.
It would be nice if some of the girls did come back to help.
Those who are 6 or 7 say “when I’m older I’m going to come back and do something for more children, I’m going to help Mama Vero.” When I was little I never thought I would do something for the children – I changed – and not everyone thinks the same. In our family there were only two of us who returned to the casa hogar in Tepic. My soul was touched by where I lived and what happened to us.
But we do have a boy who returns, he is now 16 years old. He came here through DIF, with another, when he was 9 and was here for 4 years because his immediate family were all drug dealers and were all in prison. So we knew we’d have him and the other for a while and we loved them both and provided them with many tools so that when they left they were prepared. Everything is through the grace of God – we take them to church, teach them to pray at night so they have faith in God, teach them to forgive – some have so much hatred in them because of what has happened. We teach them to love and forgive or they will never be happy. They were returned to their families in Vallarta, and this one tells his grandmother and comes to spend the day here with us. He says “Oh Mama Vero, you gave me so much good advice!”
During the winter season I know you have a lot of volunteers, visiting Americans and Canadians – but how many in the summer?
None! It’s so nice that they come here to rest and relax and still volunteer. It’s sad that the Mexicans don’t have that culture – they work for their own children and for themselves. There are some Mexicans who come to teach, but very few. But now we have some contacts with students from other countries, from Norwegian and Canadian universities, and young people come during the summer for 2 or 3months.
A lot of people say “I can’t help because I don’t know Spanish”
For the children it’s all very easy for them to make contact and develop relationships even if there is no Spanish. They will say “come, come!” and do sign language to show what they want. For me there was a time when I was afraid to speak English because of making mistakes and I wouldn’t talk because I was embarrassed. But when volunteers were here they would help me, correct me, it was fine!
I know you always want volunteers to help with the laundry. .. how about homework? Do the children have homework to do?
Yes, there is a special room for homework upstairs, we have an employee help them. I make a list so the children go there, 2 every half hour, depending on their grade. When the homework is done then they have to study and then they can leave. When they are all done then they can paint or work in puzzles. Sometimes they go to the library Rey Nayar by arrangement with Mary Carmen Pickup. We had a lot of books here we did not need so we gave them to the library.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I am so grateful to everyone, everyone put their faith in Manos de Amor, there has always been help and support from the community, the visitors, residents, volunteers, Amigos, all the hard work done by everyone and people making the fundraisers, Rhythm n Ribs of course, but all the others, and all the contributions. It is the help of everyone that keeps us going. We say thank you to everyone!
And thank YOU, Vero – You do an amazing job. We hope you will always be here!
For any help please email: [email protected] Tel: 298 3680