By Mel Shin, 15, Whitney HS (Cerritos)
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Mel loved visiting Tijuana so much that he is helping organize his Key Club's next trip to the orphanage.

From volunteering at a local food bank to tutoring kids, my school’s 230 Key Club members do a lot to help the community. But by far our biggest and most popular activity is our annual one-day trip to help orphans in Tijuana.

As soon as I heard about it, I signed up, and the other 50 spots filled quickly. The day began at 6:30 a.m. last semester in the parking lot at Whitney High. My classmates and I loaded the bus full of food, diapers, toys, blankets, and school, cleaning and medical supplies for the children. We had raised $1,268 to buy all these supplies through bake sales, car washes and getting an $800 grant from Key Club International. We were on our way by 7:30.

Our club teamed up with a nonprofit organization called Corazón de Vida, which means “Heart of Life.” The group raises $25,000 a month to feed kids at 14 Mexican orphanages. As we drove to Mexico, one of the Corazón de Vida volunteers, Larry Fox, told us one of the things he liked about the organization:  “If I got involved with Corazón de Vida, I knew where my money was going.”

We listened as Fox and other volunteers talked about the history of Corazón de Vida. What was more interesting to me, as a passenger with a window seat, was the city of Tijuana.

Another world

Sunny Kim, 17, colored with the kids as part of Whitney High's outreach to an orphanage in Mexico.

Photo by Kevin Shin, 18, Whitney HS (graduate)

As soon as we had crossed the border from the United States into Mexico, everything changed. I saw thicker graffiti, rockier roads, more homeless people and people working in the streets. I saw women holding a baby in one arm and a plastic cup in the other begging for change at each intersection. If only this were the bad part of Tijuana.

Riding our bus through downtown Tijuana, we found that at every stop, a different worker on the street would come up to the bus asking for change. I saw one man juggling flaming torches atop his partner’s shoulders at an intersection in central Tijuana. After his juggling feat, he leaped down, catching all of the torches and collecting money in a plastic cup.

As we made our way to the orphanage we were visiting, Hacienda de la Imaculada, we passed through Cuauhtemoc or Avenue Industrial, a road right along the border between Tijuana and San Diego. This solemn road was surrounded by walls lined with crosses and names for all the people who had failed in their attempt to cross into the U.S. We passed by crosses and decorated coffins as we observed a moment of silence for those people.

Riding along the bumpy dirt road in the Matamas region we entered the poorer part of Tijuana. Many children and people were living on the streets and most suffered under the hot sun along the dusty roads. In the rainy seasons, they would struggle in the deep mud of the dirt roads.

As soon as we entered the gates of the orphanage, we were greeted by the Mother of the orphanage, Madre Virginia. Volunteers quickly unloaded the supplies and food, carrying it inside. It was satisfying to see all the supplies filling up an empty storeroom. After unloading, we each set about the activities we had been assigned.

Inside the main building, some of my classmates were reading or just talking with orphans. Outside under a gazebo, others drew with the children and blew bubbles with them. In a small play area, volunteers played soccer, basketball and football with more children. In another isolated building, a few volunteers were assigned the job of watching the babies in the nursery.

And some, like me, walked around, playing with any child who seemed lonely. With a few of the kids, I kicked around a soccer ball and threw a football. I drew with some of the kids with chalk and colored with some of them with crayons and markers.

Halfway through the day, with the hot sun beating down on our backs, we were called in for the lunch break. We had turkey and cheese sandwiches on white bread with a bag of chips and water, Sprite or Coke. The line of children to get their plates of food grew shorter as they began to take their seats and eat. Volunteers were surrounded by mobs of children holding up their empty cups for another pour of Sprite.

The big surprise of the day for the orphans and the best part of the day for me was the piñata de payaso. All of the children seemed to light up at the sight of the clown made of tissue paper, waiting to be beat apart so that its belly could burst with candy raining down on the chaotically scrambling children. Afterward, all the kids were bright with smiles with their stashes of candy hidden away in their pockets.

After an hour more of play with the orphans, it was time for us to leave. We all slowly filed into the bus waving goodbye and giving quick hugs to the orphans we had spent the day with.

We passed through all that we had seen in the morning and the city of Tijuana amazed and saddened me all over again. The state of the city was horrible. The streets were dirty and most of Tijuana’s population seemed to work on the streets selling, performing or just begging. After passing the Cuauhtemoc again, everyone on the bus was quiet with exhaustion and solemnity.

The trip left me with a new appreciation for how much I have in life. The Monday after the trip, as I was eating breakfast before going to school, I thought about how much the orphans would have needed the food. Every time I thought about what we had done for the orphans, I felt better, but I wish there was something that could be permanently done to improve their lives. The poverty I had seen not only gave me a greater sense of gratitude for what I had, but allowed me to understand why illegal immigrants want to come to America so much. They are so desperate for a better life.

My experience made me want to go next year and the year after that. I feel like every time I go, I can make a direct, positive impact on someone’s life. And that’s very special.

For more information on Corazón de Vida go to or