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NMSU student service organization to be honored in Sweden for its work in Mexico

What is a home?


t 150 families living in Centro Santa Catalina, a women's sewing cooperative in the old city dump in Juarez, home may be a one-room cinderblock shelter or a structure made of cardboard and packing crates.

These disadvantaged families earn an average income of $100.

That's monthly.

The stark living conditions of these families prompted the New Mexico State University Rotaract Club, a student chapter of Rotary International, to take action.

For its efforts to improve the lives of the families, the Rotaract Club will be honored June 10 at the 2006 Rotaract Preconvention Meeting in Malmo, a commercial center and international city in the southern part of Sweden. Their project, the Santa Catalina Project, has been named the "Outstanding Rotaract Service Project for the U.S., Canada and Caribbean region."

Former Rotaract President Juliana Maio was invited to Sweden to accept the award, but since she cannot attend, current President Charmaine Vega and member Janella Cruz will accept the award on behalf of the club, said Paul Huntsberger, assistant vice provost of NMSU's Study Abroad Program and Rotaract's faculty adviser.

Huntsberger praised Maio for encouraging the club to be actively involved in the project. He also said she was instrumental in establishing the three-year-old NMSU Rotaract Club, the second one in New Mexico, as well as befriending a group of University of Texas at El Paso students as they formed a Rotaract club on their campus.

"She has inspired many students to believe in the ideal of service and to practice these beliefs for the benefit of others," Huntsberger said.

For the sewing cooperative, this meant finding a market for its goods. Since sales of handmade Mexican products are higher in the U.S. than in Mexico, the students sold blankets, tablecloths and scarves made by the co-op women at NMSU and at the Mesilla Valley Rotary Club in December 2003. They earned $1,500 and sent the proceeds to Centro Santa Catalina, where the income was equally divided among the cooperative's families. The students also collected scholarship money for the families' children and helped the women market their sewing products.

Since then, the Santa Catalina Project has become the lifetime international project for NMSU Rotaract.

In November 2004, Rotaractors and Rotarians collected money to buy three new sewing machines for the cooperative's women after their machines were stolen. The Rotaractors delivered the machines, gave $40 each to the two most disadvantaged families in the cooperative, and gave another $15 to a fund to help buy medicine for the families. The plight of the families prompted a Rotarian to give another $100 to the cooperative's medicine fund.

In the spring of 2005, sales of the women's sewing products brought in another $1,300, and in the summer of that year, Rio Grande Rotary Club members donated $500 to the NMSU Rotaract Club to use specifically to help Centro Santa Catalina. The Rotaractors used that money to sponsor five children from the cooperative so they could attend school. Children attending Juarez public schools must buy their uniforms, supplies, and in some cases, books, as well as pay small fees. Another local Rotary Club, the Mesilla Valley Rotary Club, donated $1,000 to provide more scholarships for the cooperative's children.

In November 2005, the NMSU Rotaract Club earned $1,450 through the sales of products as well as individual donations, sending the money to the poor families at the cooperative.

Rotaractors and Rotarians also collected and gave $2,400 to one of the co-op women who was ready to sell her family's one-bedroom house to earn money for her husband's heart surgery.

Working with the poor Juarez families was a real-life learning experience for the college students on many different levels. They learned what life is like for families who live in one-room dwellings with no insulation or running water, how families cope when they cannot afford to send their children to public schools and how families deal with lack of access to medical treatment.

Judy Messal, an assistant professor in the NMSU Communications Studies Department and Rotarian who serves as the Santa Catalina project adviser, noted that the university's Rotaract Club exemplifies the Rotary motto: "Service Above Self."

"The kinds of tasks they do include pulling weeds at public schools, painting United Way offices, cleaning up the NMSU campus, tutoring children, raising funds for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and making blankets for those in need," Messal said.

Rotaract is open to interested people between the ages of 18 and 30. The Mesilla Valley Rotary Club of Las Cruces sponsors Rotaract, which is soliciting donations to defray the cost of sending Vega and Cruz to Sweden. For instructions on donating to the Rotaract Travel Fund, contact Paul Huntsberger (phuntsbe@nmsu.edu) or Judy Messal (jlmessal@nmsu.edu).


Bob Nosbisch
June 2, 2006