by David Werner

Socially Constructive Alternatives to Crime and Violence

The village of Ajoya, in the foothills of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, has been the location of community-based health and rehabilitation initiatives that have broken new ground in the fields of grassroots health and empowerment. Two programs that have had their training and coordination centers in this village have—through their innovative methods—contributed to the evolution of Primary Health Care and Community Based Rehabilitation worldwide. Several books have grown out of these experiences to become among the most widely used in their fields. Project Piaxtla (a villager-run health program) has given birth to Where There Is No Doctor, a village health care handbook, and also to Helping Health Workers Learn, a handbook on participatory, discovery-based methods of health education. PROJIMO (Program of Rehabilitation Organized by Disabled Youth of Western Mexico)–has inspired the books Disabled Village Children and, in 1998, Nothing About Us Without Us.

The PROJIMO Rehabilitation Program has decided to move to the safer, more accessible town of Coyotitan.

Recently, however, the village of Ajoya has been going through difficult times. The economic crisis in Mexico—and the widening gap between rich and poor that has resulted from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the “global casino” of speculative investing—has led to a tidal wave of joblessness, falling wages, crime and violence throughout the country. As we have described in previous newsletters, the village of Ajoya, a strategically-located exchange point for illegal drugs grown in the mountains, has suffered more than its share of robberies, assaults, and kidnappings. As a response to so much crime and violence, many families have fled the village. In the last 4 years the population has dropped from 1000 to 700. The situation has also caused a split in PROJIMO into two sub-programs.

The PROJIMO Rehabilitation Program has decided to move to the safer, more accessible town of Coyotitan on the main west-coast highway.

The PROJIMO Rehabilitation Program has decided to move to the safer, more accessible town of Coyotitan on the main west-coast highway. And the PROJIMO Skills Training and Work Program has been formed to remain in the troubled village of Ajoya, with the goal of providing socially constructive alternatives to both disabled persons and to village youth who, for lack of job opportunities or hopes of a viable future, are too often lured into drugs, crime and violence. Already the new PROJIMO Work Program has given a new sense of hope to this beautiful but beleaguered village.

The Children’s Wheelchair Building Project

The PROJIMO Skills Training and Work Program has launched a number of projects to teach skills and to provide income generating work to young disabled and non-disabled youth. These projects to date have included chicken-raising, toy and ornament making, carpentry and coffin making, and welding and wheelchair making.

In Mexico, as in many poor countries, if disabled children manage to get a wheelchair at all, they are often given an adult-size chair. Such oversize wheelchairs tend to further incapacitate the child rather than to contribute to her freedom.

Creating a Demand for Children’s Wheelchairs

Unfortunately, most parents are so used to seeing children in adult-size wheelchairs that they do not realize how much their child could benefit from a chair that fits their child and is adapted to meet his or her needs. Therefore, the goal of the Children’s Wheelchair Building Project is to build and supply enough children with well-fitted, appropriate wheelchairs that parents and children alike begin to expect and demand them.

Cost is a major barrier for poor families. Although PROJIMO builds high-quality children’s wheelchairs at remarkably low cost (about $150.00 per chair), with the growing poverty, unemployment, and falling real wages in Mexico, many families simply cannot afford one.

For this reason, PROJIMO has sought ways to subsidize the cost of wheelchairs. A Dutch foundation, Stichting Liliane Fonds, has agreed to cover 60% of the cost of wheelchairs for children from poor families. (Liliane will also help with additional critically needed assistance for the child and family as needed.) For children living in the Mazatlan area, the government program, DIF (Integrated Family Development) has agreed to pay an additional 20% of the cost for a child’s wheelchair. Dolores Mesina, a social worker with DIF, who is herself a wheelchair rider and a PROJIMO “graduate,” is helping to coordinate this program. The office of DIF in the state capital of Culiacan is also entering into a similar agreement with PROJIMO to help children get the wheelchairs they need.

The two leaders of the wheelchair shop are Gabriel Zepeda and Martin Perez, both skilled craftspersons who first came to PROJIMO for rehabilitation after they were paralyzed by bullet wounds. Both have learned from Ralf Hotchkiss, a world-famous wheelchair designer (also paraplegic), who helped PROJIMO set up its original wheelchair shop many years ago. Gabriel periodically makes trips to California to help teach in Ralf’s “Wheeled Mobility” workshop at San Francisco State University.

The workers at the new wheelchair shop are still in the process of developing a series of adaptable designs for children with different needs. Their goal is to form an economically self-sufficient cooperative, which supplies a large number of children with low-cost, high quality chairs.

Already there is a growing interest in the children’s wheelchair program, with prospects for disabled apprentices to come from other parts of Mexico to learn the basic skills and set up their own shops. The team hopes for the day when every child who needs a wheelchair will have one.

From Coffins to Dining Sets: The Projimo Work Program’s Carpentry Project is Off to a Good Start

The purpose of PROJIMO’s new Work Program is to provide skills training and work opportunities for disabled and non-disabled young villagers. Of the new work projects started so far, one of the most exciting is the Carpentry Workshop.

The Carpentry workshop is headed by Mario Carrasco, who before he became paralyzed by a bullet wound was a street youth and drug runner. In PROJIMO, Mario became a skilled carpenter and builder of special seating for disabled children. He is a good role model for some of the vagrant village youth who have been turning to drugs and crime, because they see no economic future for themselves A number of these young men now work with the carpentry program and are earning a living while taking pride in their growing skills.

Production of Coffins

The production of low cost wooden coffins has proved to be one of the carpentry project’s most successful ventures. It is also a much needed and greatly appreciated public service. When a loved-one dies, the cost of a coffin is often a ruinous espense for the poor village family. The carpentry team now makes attractive, cloth-lined coffins and sells them locally for about one third the price of the commercial equivalent.

So far, the biggest buyer so far of PROJIMO coffins has been the municipal government, which receives a lot of requests from poor families. So far the government has bought over 20 coffins.

Environment-Friendly Use of Chainsaws

When the Carpentry Project began, the workers were using primarily pine planks purchased from lumber yards in the high sierra. But the wood is expensive. Worse still, the pine forests in the mountains are rapidly being destroyed by overtimbering. This has led to erosion of the mountain slopes and Increasingly devastating floods of the river valleys during the rainy season.

But now the team is taking advantage of the seasonal floods of the river to find high grade wood that does not deplete the forests. The flooding river carries huge fallen trees from the mountains. Some are high-quality hardwoods, such as Tepeguaje and Guinacastle, as well as mountain Cedro (cedar), all excellent for furniture building.

Today the team is turning out high-quality dining sets, bedsteads, and other furniture.

So the carpentry team bought a big (3 foot blade) chainsaw with money donated from the Mexican “TELETON” (Telethon). They sent villagers up river to hunt for and cut into big beams some of the best fallen timber, and drag them back with mules. In this way the carpentry project has managed to provide employment for local people, rather than to spend money on the environmentally costly products of the gigantic destructive timber companies.

The quality of the craftsmanship has steadily improved. Today the team is turning out high-quality dining sets, bedsteads, and other furniture, and has a waiting list for the items they produce. For full self-sufficiency, the team is now looking for ways to become more time-efficient.

The village of Ajoya has responded with enthusiasm to the skills training and work program, which is providing work not only for disabled persons, but also for the young people (and some not so young people), and thereby creating a source of income from other sources than drug growing and crime.