Straddling their mean bikes and sporting thick boots, goatees, and sunglasses, members of the Renegade Motorcycle Club can seem like pretty tough hombres.
But the smile on the club's skull logo hints at a different personality.
Mixing a passion for motorcycles with a desire to do good, the young men (and a few women) of the "Renegado Moto Club" in this parched town bordering Calexico, California, have formed an unorthodox service organization.
In their own small way, the Renegados demonstrate not only how people who don't necessarily fit into the Rotary set can be drawn into charity work, but also how communities benefit when a broader group of citizens is included in community service.
The Renegados - whose duespaying members range from businessmen to day laborers -are "a little more into partying, and a little less organized" than other service clubs, "but their heart is in the same place - they get into serving their community," says Francisco Rueda Gomez, a Mexicali councilman and candidate for the Baja California legislature.
Instead of the tie tacks and lapel pins that their forebears in local Kiwanis and Rotary clubs wore, the Renegados wear jean vests with the club logo and copious tattoos. But the weekend charity work they do - raising money for terminally ill patients, helping support youth activities, and providing security at a fundraiser rock concert - isn't too different from what service clubs have always done.
With membership in many traditional fraternal orders and service clubs falling off, the Renegade model might be something for other organizations to watch.
Mr. Rueda, a Lions Club member, notes what he considers a main factor in the Renegados' appeal. "Their door is wide open," he says. "They're not exclusive."
The club counts a customs broker, a construction worker, small-business owners, teachers, and day laborers among its 100 or so members. About a dozen hail from across the border, in Calexico. One of the newest inductees is a Mexican-born construction worker who lived almost all his life in Los Angeles until a felony conviction got him deported - and into the arms of a new family, the Renegados.
"We meet on Fridays, ride on Sundays, and in between we do things for people," says Miguel Baltazar, the club's treasurer and a motorcycle shop owner.
When a family was burned out of their home, the Renegados raised money to buy basic essentials. When a local boy required a liver transplant, they helped with some of the expenses.
"I guess we've got a reputation," Mr. Baltazar adds, "because now we have people who need something coming to us."
When Andres Gallegos needed security for the charity rock concert he was planning, the Mexicali radio station announcer went straight to the Renegados' club house, a sagging former garage near the town's foul New River. "They helped us provide a good but safe atmosphere," Mr. Gallegos says. "There was no trouble, with those guys in charge."
Mexicali's image of bikers hasn't always been so glowing. Before the Renegade club, which is 15 years old this month, there were the "Vagos," or Vagabonds. "They were trouble," Gallegos recalls.
Maybe the fact that Mexicali's mayor, architect Victor Hermosillo, is also a biker, has helped widen the Renegados' acceptance, though the mayor belongs to a different club. Whatever the reason, the Renegados find few doors closed when they offer to help.
When the bikers wanted to visit a home for the children of poor single mothers and spend a Saturday playing with the kids, the director of the 50-bed boarding school welcomed them. "It's really a good thing when people volunteer to do something like this," says Sister Maria Elena Velasquez, director of Mexicali's Casa Pacceli. "It ends up doing good for all involved."
Sergio Galindo knows what Sister Maria Elena is talking about. A Mexican citizen born in Jalisco but raised in Los Angeles, Mr. Galindo got into trouble in 1994 with the gang he ran with in California, and ended up in prison. Though he says he had nothing to do with the murder that witnesses associated him with, Galindo was deported - and landed in Mexicali.
Sporting tattoos that cover his torso, Galindo says the Renegados have given him a family in a country he didn't know until nine months ago. And the community work helps him feel like he's giving something back.
"The people I hung out with in L.A. didn't do this kind of stuff, but here, I'm really into it," he says. "It just makes you feel good."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor