For 13 hours, Eleazar Resendiz, a high school art student at Pocatello High School, studied the photograph of a girl he had never met. He knew little about the 5 year old girl from Mexico, but he wanted to draw her portrait and give her the kind of gift she would cherish for a lifetime. Fellow students in his advanced painting and drawing classes also poured over photos, determined to transform a simple picture into a keepsake for a child they had never meet. The program is part of a global cross-cultural art curriculum where American students draw or paint children in orphanages to produce a meaningful gift.
The idea was sparked by the Memory Project, an initiative to create portraits for disadvantaged children worldwide. For two years Jennifer VanWasshenova, a Michigan art teacher, worked alongside founder Ben Schumaker before heading out on her own. At present, she and her students have created portraits for children at Back2Back ministry sites in Mazatlan & Cancun, Mexico and Hyderabad, India. Now, she continues to work closely with Back2Back to provide portraits to children around the world. In today’s guest blog, VanWasshenova shares more about this inspiring initiative.
By Jennifer VanWasshenova, Pocatello High School Art Teacher
As a high school art teacher, I wanted to offer my students a service-learning project with cross-cultural curriculum. The desire for the project was to create lasting memories for my American high school students while serving disadvantaged children in other countries. I wanted my students to learn about other cultures, people, compassion, hard work and love. This project allowed me to build a bridge to other cultures while cultivating compassion through art. Students caught the vision and were eager to contribute.
I teach techniques specific to drawing or painting the human face including lighting and shadows, angles and shapes of noses, and blending pinks and browns and tans to pinpoint skin color. When my students were paired up with a child, I shared all I knew about the child; their likes, interests and age. As they worked, students gained confidence in their art and began to develop a connection with the child they were drawing or painting. In addition, students researched the country and culture of the child for a written reflection paper. Specific writing prompts allowed them to explore topics such as orphan care, foster care, poverty and the individual’s role in offering help to those in need.
Cross Cultural Connection
Near the end of the assignment some students, who initially felt they had little in common with the child, had developed a sense of connection. Students felt a deep sense of care for the child whose portrait they had created. I watched as my students’ understanding of the world has grown. As U.S. students take a peek into the story of a child from a different culture, their worldview expands. I hope students leave my class with a great sense of compassion and a deeper connection with their world.
Last summer, my husband and I personally delivered 80 portraits to children served by Back2Back India. Upon meeting the children face-to-face for the first time, I was overwhelmed with excitement because I felt as if I already knew each child.
As we handed each child their portrait, I felt a connection with my students, envisioning the student who had created that particular piece. After the first day, I sobbed uncontrollably as the months of hard work met completion. The children’s smiles and excitement were so worth it. This summer, more recently, children from Back2Back Cancun were received their portraits.
An Act of Kindness
Each fall, I invite my students back for a cultural party, and I share a slideshow of photos of the children receiving their portraits. The students are thrilled to receive a photo of the child with their portrait. In an incredibly touching moment this year, I presented carefully hand-drawn pictures to my U.S. students from their new Indian friends.
This project is an act of kindness and love. I hope to inspire my students to do good, inspire others and love. I’m so proud of my students and excited to have discovered a way to use my passion for art to make a difference, even if it’s small. My hope is that each student and child involved in this project feels a bit of love, hope, and worth.
On May 17th, the Hope Program was officially launched in Mazatlan, Mexico with the dedication of the Abigail House. The Abigail House is the newest addition to Back2Back’s Hope Program and the first Hope home in Back2Back Mazatlán. Six girls from Floreser, Salvation Army and Rancho de los Niños children’s homes now call the Abigail House home and enjoy family-style living – residing with two house parents and two of their own children. The six girls were offered this opportunity based on their ages and emotional maturity. The 2:6 adult to child ratio will allow each girl to receive individual care and support while pursuing her education.
The dedication ceremony was held in the courtyard of the Abigail House. Ninety guests, including volunteers, local pastors, a visiting mission team and Sylvia Treviño de Felton, the wife of the local mayor attended this special event. Jorge and Gennie Castro, Abigail House parents, shared about their life journey leading them to serve with Back2Back as house parents. Gabo Velasco, Back2Back Mazatlan Director, addressed the audience sharing about the importance of serving God and one another. After the ceremony, the mayor’s wife toured the home and encouraged the girls to take advantage of the opportunity God has given them.
This particular Hope Program home was named in honor of Abigail, a Biblical figure who displayed virtuous character in the midst of adversity. Abigail was not detained by her circumstances, but instead showed tremendous bravery, courage and faithfulness in the face of difficulty. The end of the story of Abigail is brimming with hope. God honors her obedience in a spectacular way, reminding us that a difficult past does not disqualify us from being used by God. Our hope is that the girls will learn from Abigail’s legacy, embracing God’s sovereignty to change not just their own lives but His power to work through their hardships to transform the lives of those around them.
As we celebrate this exciting milestone, we are especially grateful for the support from partners around the world, which made the Abigail Home a reality. “During our recent opening ceremony for the Abigail House, we stopped to remember all the relationships that God has built for this to be possible. If it were not for the church and local pastors, as well as ministry partners around the world, this would not have been possible,” said Chad Huber, Back2Back Mazatlan staff.
Pray for the six girls moving into the Abigail House. Pray for a positive transition to their new home and for the girls to develop healthy relationships with each other and their house parents, Jorge and Gennie. We are excited to share upcoming stories of God’s faithfulness in the lives of each girl and trusting Him for more to come.
Looking back over the past three months, Back2Back Mazatlan has made progress in several key areas, including launching the Hope Program, as well as a local volunteer program.
The Hope Program was launched and house parents have been selected. The house parents, Jorge and Gennie, recently traveled to California to attend training sessions on caring for traumatized children. They have already started building relationships with the six girls who will be living in their home, taking them to movies and shopping to prepare them for the transition.
Currently, 15 local volunteers and foreign residents volunteer weekly at the children’s homes, helping with construction projects, tutoring and spending one-on-one time with the children. Back2Back staff connect with locals from area churches who are interested in volunteering. Consistent volunteers benefit the children and provide crucial support to the staff; volunteer opportunities also allow locals an opportunity to engage in meaningful service on a regular basis.
On January 26 – 29, Back2Back held a life-skills training session with local volunteers and staff from seven children’s homes. Participants received training to teach children life skills, including cleaning, self-esteem, creating a resume and interviewing for a job. Volunteers are helpful in implementing the training.
A medical mission team from the U.S. served at Salvation Army and Rancho de los Niños children’s homes, creating a useful database for each home to chart and store essential medical information, such as immunization records, medication history and growth records.
Each child has an individualized education plan, with local teachers and volunteers serving as tutors.
The water purification project is finished at Rancho de los Niños Children’s Home. The boys’ restroom is remodeled and the perimeter wall is almost finished.
Mission groups and local volunteers are making progress on the construction of the perimeter wall at Salvation Army Children’s Home. Footers have been poured. We continue to see significant progress.
Pray the new Hope students experience a smooth transition into the Hope Program, as they continue to pursue their education.
Typically, caregivers who work at Salvation Army Children’s Home serve for an assigned amount of time in the home and then move on to their next assignment through the Salvation Army. Pray the Salvation Army allows the current caregivers to stay at the children’s home, so that bonds formed with the children can continue.
“We are only as good as we are deep” is a Back2Back value which resonates deeply within the staff in Mazatlan, Mexico. As parents ourselves, we understand each child is a unique creation who learns and matures in an individualized way. Back2Back’s desire is to provide more than shelter and food. To that end, we are working toward a focused and individualized Child Development Plan for each child served, meeting each child’s spiritual, physical, educational, emotional and social needs. This individual care not only shows each child he is known and loved but it also allows staff to impact each child in a deeply holistic way.
As part of Back2Back’s goal to invest deeply in the children’s lives, Back2Back Mazatlan Director, Gabriel Velasco, knew it was time to develop Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) for each child. An IEP is an educational road map providing direction for a child’s learning. After identifying and measuring each child’s current learning levels, goals are set and weaker skills sets are identified for concentrated intervention and tutoring. Because education is the key to ending the cycle of poverty, Gabriel began searching for a local education specialist to assist with creating these plans.
Little did he know God would place such a person in his van.
Gabriel had offered to drive a group of local volunteers from an area church to a community event. During the drive, he mentioned Back2Back’s work with children in local orphanages. When one passenger casually mentioned she was a 23-year veteran of the local school district and her specialty was creating IEP’s for disadvantaged children, Gabriel knew God was on the move.
“How can I help?” Olimpia asked.
Gabriel knew exactly how to respond, enlisting Olimpia, who was eager to offer her expertise. Olimpia went to work right away, speaking with each child individually and listening to each story. Is there any wonder there would be educational gaps when a child has lived in three different homes with three different relatives in the last four years? Might there be some missing foundational skills when a nine-year-old boy stays at home instead of going to school, so he can care for his three younger siblings, while mom works two jobs to feed them? With a tender heart and years of experience, Olimpia carefully crafted plans to fill in the gaps and help each child develop the solid foundation they need to excel in school.
Working hand-in-hand with Olimpia, Back2Back Mazatlan staff member, Grant Keyes, a trained math teacher, serves as the coordinator of Back2Back Mazatlan’s education program. Grant worked with Olimpia to determine how Back2Back could serve as a bridge to connect the children to people who could help.
Once the plans were completed, volunteer tutors from a local church worked through the summer with all the children. Three days a week, they came to Salvation Army Children’s Home with IEP’s in hand, tutoring each child in the areas they needed the most help. Some children willingly gave up summer vacation activities to work with their tutors, so they could catch up to their peers in school. Every single child showed marked improvement by the time school began in August.
One sibling group of four children was so far behind, three days a week of volunteer-based tutoring would not be enough. Using resources provided through the child sponsorship program, we hired tutors to work individually with each child five days a week through the summer. The results were extraordinary! Jose Angel, a 13-year-old boy who missed school for more than two years to care for his three younger sisters, advanced an entire grade level. His nine-year-old sister America was going to have to repeat the first grade for the 3rd time. However, when returning to school in August, she tested out of first grade and is currently charging into second grade armed with confidence. Her teacher shared she could see the difference in America, and she is now thinking of ways America can help motivate the other children in her class to learn. The stories of change go on and on.
When we look into a child’s eyes and take a deep inventory of their life, their story and their needs, children are impacted in ways that defy measurement. Good grades are nice, but being seen, heard, valued and understood is priceless. In terms of measurement – the results speak for themselves.
Chad Huber and his family serve with Back2Back in Mazatlan, Mexico, as a voice for orphans and vulnerable children. He is the captain of Rancho de los Ninos Children’s Home, a children’s home for children with special needs.
By Amy Tuell, Mission Trip Participant
I have traveled several times serving with Back2Back in Mexico, but this year was unique and special. Through Back2Back’s Child Sponsorship Program, I formed a relationship with an impressive young man named Adan. Currently living at Casa Hogar Bethany in Monterrey, Mexico, Adan is finishing his second year of college. I am incredibly impressed with all God is doing in this young man’s life.
Last October, Adan joined our medical mission team for three full days assisting us with translating and facilitating communication between the doctors, nurses and dentist and the children and adults they were examining and treating. He talked about his dream of becoming a pastor and his desire to go on a mission trip himself.
I felt a nudge from God saying, “Invite Adan to join your team going to Mazatlan next year.”
And, so the conversation began. A few months later, the money for Adan’s trip started pouring in from many different sources including Back2Back, his other sponsor and my staff, as a Christmas present to me!
After months of planning, the day finally arrived to depart for Mexico. The day we traveled, I was nervous and praying because Adan had never flown before. Arriving at the Mexico City airport, I was so excited to find him and wrapped him in a big hug. Adan had made his first solo flight successfully and we boarded the second plane together. But later that night, he confessed to our team at debriefing he was terrified to fly in an airplane and prayed to God, if he died, at least he knew he would be able to “see my Savior’s face!”
Over the next seven days, I was continually honored and privileged to serve alongside Adan, as he exemplified Romans 12:11: “Never lag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.” The love of God flowed through Adan, as he connected with every single person he came in contact with. His connection was especially strong with eight-year-old Alex on our mission team. Alex and Adan became buddies. If Alex wanted to sit with Adan, Adan sat with Alex. If Alex wanted to eat with Adan, Adan ate with Alex.
One day, Alex wanted to work on the roof with Adan, but his mother said, “No, it’s not safe.”
So Adan came down the ladder, picked up two paintbrushes and said, “Come on, Alex, let’s paint the fence!”
One night at Ranchos de los Niños, Adan agreed to share his testimony. He confided in me he was very nervous, and I told him to simply breathe and know that God would be with him. When he stood up to speak, he was steady and strong. Speaking with a solid voice, Adan shared about the difficult things he had lived through: loss of his parents, abuse, neglect, homelessness, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. But, then, he spoke about Jesus and how his entire life has changed since he invited Him into his heart. He now lives and breathes for Him!
Listening intently, the children fixed their eyes squarely on Adan, hanging on every word he said. They knew Adan understood what they were living because he had lived it, too. He wasn’t a family member. He wasn’t a paid staff person. He wasn’t a mission team visitor. He was one of them, and he shined the hope of Jesus. When he finished, one by one, the children slowly stood up and began to step forward to tell their stories and open up about their relationships with Christ. On that warm, Mazatlan night, I was privileged to witness a series of powerful and moving moments. At that moment, I had a vision set in the not too distant future – a vision of Adan preaching in his own church with the people from his congregation coming forward at the end of his sermon…
His story is just beginning.
“Good morning, Ismael,” the staff individually greet the children at Rancho de los Niños.
Twelve months ago, seven-year-old Ismael is sitting in his stroller, gazing off in the distance. Typically, he doesn’t reply, his eyes fixed on the space in front of him. Revealing little feeling or expression, Ismael cannot respond to his name or any noise around him. He sits lifeless, resisting all touch.
Born premature weighing 1.76 pounds, Ismael struggled in his early years. Medical records indicate weak muscle tone, an inability to walk, respiratory issues and no language skills. Vague diagnoses and inaccurate medication result in minimal developmental gains.
When first placed at Rancho, Ismael is not only inactive and unresponsive to those around him, his spontaneous movement is limited to a nervous habit – scratching and pulling on the back of his ear, under his arms and on his chest leaving deep wounds. Though intended to self-calm, the movements are harmful to his skin and overall health. Later termed as “bio-stimulant feedback,” the staff at Rancho de los Niños can do little more than focus on preventing Ismael from hurting himself.
As partnership with Back2Back grows and child sponsorship begins, the pursuit of long-term answers for Ismael begins.
In July 2013, Back2Back staff attempt a temporary solution, while they search for a long-term answer. Child boxing gloves are purchased and placed over Ismael’s little hands, which allow for movement but buffer his body from his hands. His wounds can now heal, as the journey for deeper, holistic care continues.
Determined, Back2Back staff begin combing the internet and find an innovative product from the United Kingdom. This specialized sleeve connects to the shoulder and protects Ismael from scratching and pulling his skin, while also giving him the range of motion to pick up objects and become an independent eater. This soft, silky sleeve fits like a sweater, snugly over his hands, providing a barrier for his skin in a more natural, less obtrusive way.
In August 2013, through Child Sponsorship funds, Back2Back locates a pediatric neurologist at a Children’s Hospital in another city for a second opinion. After only 4-5 appointments, Ismael is on his way to a better life. Correct medication starts and is adjusted several times over the following months. This individualized treatment is already resulting in remarkable change. Becoming more alert, Ismael looks at others and communicates his preferences and needs.
Today, Ismael’s physical wounds have healed. He can be trusted to play independently for a few minutes at a time. With consistent and accurate treatment, Ismael has greater educational opportunities than he did before. Now that his harmful scratching has stopped, Ismael can be enrolled in a school for children with special needs. Since March 2014, Ismael has attended school where he receives physical therapy and can be seen learning and playing with peers.
Next up: pursuing speech therapy.
With effective medical treatment and individualized attention, Ismael is flourishing. Staff can now focus on setting goals for improving cause and effect, language, and motor skills. He is learning to respond without tears when encouraged to walk, and will now walk alongside anyone willing to hold his hand. Ismael looks forward to the arrival of mission teams. He initiates contact and loves to be held. This human touch and affection has been key to Ismael’s developmental gains. If you visit Rancho, you will likely see Ismael standing at your feet, arms lifted up. He is inviting you to engage with him in his now bigger world.
For more stories of hope, join us on December 8th. Click here
The first of its kind in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico, Rancho de los Niños Children’s Home was created to care for children with special needs. Once a farm near Mazatlan, Rancho is home to 21 uniquely beautiful children and young adults.
Here, we meet Miguel who has lived at Rancho for nine years. Miguel is passionate about music, which drives his interest in making his own musical instruments. He loves the children deeply, caring for and playing with them everyday. Viewed as a ‘big brother’, he relishes in bringing a smile to their faces and is quick to sacrifice to meet their needs. When the children need individual attention, Miguel holds, comforts and prays over them. He has found an extended family.
Miguel is a helper – he gives to others putting their needs above his own. So accustomed to putting others first, he looks puzzled when Back2Back staff member, Chad Huber, asks, “I love that you love to help, but what can we do for you? What would you like for your birthday?”
Miguel shrugs his shoulders and confides with a grin that he would love a real drum set. Back2Back staff searched the local area for an electric drum set with no success. The staff asked Miguel to be patient. “We will keep trying,” Chad promised. On a brief trip home to the U.S., Chad found just the right set. He carefully boxed the gift and transported it over the border for Miguel’s big day.
After a month of searching, Miguel’s special gift would be revealed. Wrapped in festive, multi-colored paper, the drum set would fulfill one of Miguel’s special wishes. After gathering all the children for the celebration, he tears open the paper and beams. His smile communicates a deep understanding of how truly loved and valued he is.
Anxious to play music, he opens the box, removes the set and places it on the table. Raising the drumsticks in the air prepared to play, Miguel pauses. He turns to the children, holds up the drumsticks and asks, “Who would like to play?”
Miguel is fluent in serving others. However, his developmental needs impact his ability to live independently. The Mexican government does not have a support system in place for adults with disabilities, leaving future planning in the hands of the children’s home. Back2Back is committed to lifelong care for the children at Rancho de los Niños, as the staff prays for and works with Miguel about his future plans. Visiting mission trip team members with specialized backgrounds help educate Back2Back staff on Miguel’s strengths and options for his future. Many ideas surface as we dare to dream. As we abide in God and seek His guidance, we trust He will reveal the next step. In the meantime, Miguel will bloom where he is planted, caring for others, joyfully playing his drums, and patiently waiting for the next step to be revealed.
By Adam Gellenbeck, Back2Back Field Staff, Mazatlan, Mexico
Sixteen-year old Alberto loves textile arts, soccer and skateboarding. He enjoys spending afternoons with Back2Back staff at a local skate park. He strives to be a leader in his children’s home, someone they can look up to and come to for advice. He is passionate about living his life as an example for the younger boys in his dorm. Alberto has a compassionate heart and a desire to serve. “When I grow up, I want to help other people in need,” he says.
As an orphaned teen in Mazatlan, Mexico, Alberto could be involved in so many other things besides soccer and skateboarding. Statistics indicate orphaned children have an increased likelihood for involvement in drugs, human trafficking, or the black market. But Alberto is not a statistic, nor are the other four boys at Salvation Army Children’s Home who have no family to visit on the weekend.
At Back2Back, we strive to provide children like Alberto with the love and encouragement they need to thrive in the midst of difficult circumstances with no family support. Each weekend, the boys watch as one-by-one the other children are picked up for a weekend visit with a family member. They wonder what they did wrong for their family not to visit them. I love building into these boys for many reasons, but the greatest reason is to share hope with them. I invest in them through fellowship and community, cultivating a sense of belonging and giving them a chance to be themselves. It is amazing how a trip to the movies or dinner together at a taco stand provides a sense of belonging and acceptance. They enjoy typical boy antics – rough-housing and practical jokes, but ultimately each boy has dreams and hopes for his future.
Back2Back’s dream in Mazatlan, Mexico is to build a stronger sense of hope for each of the children we serve, a hope based on the promises of a faithful God. We are in the midst of a land campaign to develop a Back2Back ministry site in Mazatlan, a project that will allow us to better serve children and empower them to break free from the cycle of poverty. This is only possible through the Body of Christ coming together. The vision is for a ministry site that will not only facilitate mission teams and the staff, but also create an environment of hope for each child’s future. The property will also include multi-purpose space for teen retreats, child development, training sessions for local caregivers and churches, and ministry time with current Hope Education Program students. In addition, we will construct six Hope Program houses for teens like Alberto. We envision a Hope Program in Mazatlan that will allow orphaned children to live in a home, experiencing a healthy family life for the first time. The goal is to not merely meet each child’s physical needs, but to equip each child with the tools and resources to have successful futures by investing in their spiritual, emotional, social and educational development.
The more time I spend with Alberto, the more I see his incredible potential and just how much God cares for him. I’m grateful to play a role in helping him understand the love of his heavenly Father. I’m excited for the completion of this project, as it will enable us to provide better care for the children we serve, ensuring they have the tools to pursue an education when they age out of the children’s home. As we come alongside orphaned and vulnerable children, we are eager to see how God begins to renew lives and rewrite futures.
For more about the Mazatlan vision, click here.
By Chad Huber, Back2Back Mazatlan, Mexico Field Staff
Recently, one of the older girls who lives at Rancho de los Ninos Children’s Home realized that a very special friend was visiting her again. Fifteen-year old Cinthya met Tracey when she visited Mazatlan with a mission group from Riverview Church in 2013. Tracey has a passion for speaking life and affirmation into the lives of teenage girls. She makes a point to stay in touch with them by sending notes, pictures and encouraging them on their social media pages. When Cinthya saw that Tracey had returned for a visit, she ran into her arms and wept. This is what it looks like to go after hearts with love. You never know how much power your encouragement holds in the life of a young person like Cinthya.