Job Skills, Not Handouts For Mexican Tunnel Kids

BY day, Ricardo Garcia Rodriguez used the underground maze of drainage tunnels to get from Nogales, Sonora, to Nogales, Ariz., where he begged for food. By night, the 16-year-old runaway called the tunnels his home.

But thanks to a binational effort by community leaders in Arizona and Sonora, Ricardo may be leaving the tunnels for good and getting a job as a baker's apprentice.

''It's good they're here,'' Ricardo says of Mi Nueva Casa, or My New House, a nonprofit foundation to help tunnel kids. ''If you want to work, they'll help you find a job. They help you learn how to live outside the tunnels.''

Last year, a group of public officials, lawyers, clergy, and social service workers from both sides of the border formed Mi Nueva Casa as a response to local concern about the tunnel kids. With a $50,000 start-up grant from the Arizona Supreme Court's Juvenile Crime Reduction Fund, the group rented a house on the Mexican side of the border and hired Teresa Leal, a children's advocate from Nogales, Sonora, to run it.

Leal now spends her days being a surrogate mother to more than two-dozen tunnel kids who come to the house to eat, clean up, watch TV, talk, and help fix up the place. Ms. Leal says many of them, like Ricardo, want to leave the tunnels but don't know how.

''Lots of things have gone wrong in their lives,'' she says, ''and it's hard for them to trust.''

In just the few months the house has been open, Leal has gotten 15 kids into vocational training programs and several more back into regular school. She has obtained medical care for some tunnel dwellers -- including a pregnant 13-year-old -- and encouraged others to return to their families. She says she has encountered children as young as 5 living underground.

''We've done a lot of good already,'' says Dennis Miller, a Santa Cruz County manager and Mi Nueva Casa board member. Some of the benefits were felt right away, including a drop in crime and vandalism in Nogales, Ariz.

Yet while Mi Nueva Casa was recently hoping to expand its operation to 24 hours a day, its future is now in doubt. Locals have donated supplies, time, and money, and the MTV cable channel recently raised a few thousand dollars for the project during a stop in Nogales, Ariz. But without another grant from the Arizona Supreme Court, Mi Nueva Casa may have to shut its doors.

Each year, the Juvenile Crime Reduction Fund gives about $1 million in court fines to several dozen youth programs all over Arizona. ''We like to spread it around,'' a court spokesman says, noting that recipients are supposed to use the grants as start-up money and then seek funding from other sources. He says the court will decide by late spring whether and how much to fund Mi Nueva Casa this year.

Also troubling for Mi Nueva Casa is the loss of Gilbert Rosas, who helped get the project off the ground. As a member of the Border Volunteer Corps, Mr. Rosas was once a source of free help for the Casa. But he was recently forced to quit because the AmeriCorps national service program, of which the Border Volunteers are a part, forbids corps members from working in foreign countries.

''Losing Gilbert was a big blow for us,'' Miller says. ''It's so frustrating, because we believe this project is the most successful one the border volunteers have had.''

If Mi Nueva Casa is forced to shut down, it will be another loss for kids like Ricardo who have already experienced so many.

For Leal, the hardest part is persuading homeless kids like Ricardo to leave the tunnels. And even though Ricardo often speaks fondly of the freedom he had in the tunnels, Leal says he pines for a home: ''He told me, 'I want to be a normal kid; I want to belong somewhere.'''

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