On Mexican Border, Volunteers Pitch In

Clinton's AmeriCorps helps `tunnel kids'

WHILE finishing his master's degree at the University of Arizona last spring, Gilbert Rosas was bothered by stories about homeless Mexican children living in sewer tunnels in the border town of Nogales.

``It was always portrayed as a problem,'' Mr. Rosas says, ``and no solutions were offered.''

Now, as a member of the newly formed Border Volunteer Corps (BVC), Mr. Rosas has a chance to be part of the solution. In late September he began working with the ``tunnel kids,'' as they are called, helping them to get into schools and shelters and away from the life of crime, violence, and glue-sniffing they now lead.

Rosas is thrilled to be part of an effort to address a problem along the Mexican-United States border, one of President Clinton's AmeriCorps national service projects. With more than $2.6 million in federal grant money, the Arizona-based BVC is among the best-funded and most ambitious of almost 400 AmeriCorps projects nationwide. Supporters call it the first-ever domestic Peace Corps to tackle a border problem.

Since Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement last year, the needs along the border have become critical, says program director Richard Carter. And with all the negative publicity over illegal immigration of Mexicans, Mr. Carter says, the corps is an opportunity for border residents to contribute to and strengthen social and cultural ties in their communities.

Most of the 115 border corps members grew up in the communities they'll be serving. They will work with both governmental and private agencies on about 25 educational, health, housing, public-safety, environmental, and conservation projects over the next 10 months.

In exchange, they will receive a living allowance of $7,640, plus a $5,000 grant for education when their service is complete.

``We're certainly not doing it for the money,'' says Leonard Charley, a Native American working on a gardening project on the Tohono O'odham reservation southwest of Tucson. Like many other corps members, Mr. Charley is living with his family to make ends meet.

``But if you want to change things, and you want things to change, you have to make a little bit of a sacrifice,'' says Charley, who plans to return to school after finishing his service.

Charley emphasizes that he also expects to benefit. ``It's not just a give-and-take relationship. It's a give and give,'' he says. ``We'll all be learning from one another.''

Marlene Lloyd of Yuma is one of the few older corps members. At 59, she hopes her service in educating farm workers about pesticides will help create more economic equality along the border. ``I was always married and had kids, so I couldn't run off and join the Peace Corps,'' Ms. Lloyd says. ``When this came along, it sounded like something I could do.''

Carter says his staff of about 20 worked hard to get corps members from diverse backgrounds. Rather than seeking volunteers with special skills, they looked for people with motivation, understanding, and commitment, Carter says.

After the corps' pilot year in Arizona, Carter and others hope it will expand to other border states and to Mexico. Carter plans to seek funding from foundations and corporations, particularly those with factories in the border region, to supplement federal funding that is supposed to gradually decrease.

One thing Carter won't have to do is convince corps members that their service is worthwhile. Rosas says he's already made a difference in the life of one 12-year-old who wants to leave the tunnels.

``He just needs some guidance,'' Rosas says.

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