Summit teen recounts mission to Mexico |

Summit teen recounts mission to Mexico

Julie Sutor
Special to the DailyAllison Helmer drills into a frame while constructing a house in Juarez, Mexico, in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. Helmer was part of a group from Lord of the Mountains Church, high school and middle school students that built three houses.

SUMMIT COUNTY – On the morning of Dec. 25, 14-year-old Jaci Nudell partook in a traditional family Christmas celebration, complete with all trimmings.

By early afternoon, she had settled down for a winter’s nap to rest up for a holiday celebration that would be anything but traditional – an adventure the eighth-grader called “the best experience in the whole world.”

At 1 a.m., she and her mother, Jeri, and older sister, Kelsey, pulled into Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church, where they met a group of about 50 other Summit County residents, including several church members, about 30 high school students, five middle school students, a man in his early 70s, a local restaurant owner and a high school Spanish teacher.

After traveling to Aurora to pick up the rest of the crew, the group headed south, piled into a bus and a 15-passenger van.

“We drove and drove and drove all they way to El Paso, Texas,” Jaci Nudell said.

There, representatives from Casas por Cristo, an El Paso-based nonprofit that helped coordinate the trip, joined the group.

“Then we loaded into other vans to get across the (U.S.-Mexican) border into Juarez,” Nudell said.

Cities like Juarez in the border region are plagued by high poverty, poor environmental conditions and significant health challenges. Millions live in unincorporated communities without running water, sewers, storm drainage or electricity.

The region’s residents experience high rates of communicable illnesses, such as tuberculosis and vaccine-preventable illnesses.

“There were so many miles with people living in cardboard boxes, crates and tarps,” Nudell recalled.

The group of Coloradans ate dinner, sang a few songs and spent the night on the concrete floor of an unheated Juarez church, lined up like sardines in their sleeping bags.

“Most of us brought air mattresses because the floor gets so cold at night,” Nudell said. “It’s right on the border; it’s not like Cancun or anything.

“We woke up at 6 o’clock the next morning, ate breakfast and went to our job site.

“In the whole area, there were maybe five actual buildings out of thousands of cardboard structures. It makes you kind of realize how good you have it; it makes you want to break down and cry for all the people who are living like that.”

Through Casas por Cristo, the group of Summit County volunteers connected with three families who had each purchased a plot of land in an outlying desert area.

The group provided free labor and materials to build homes for the families.

“We mixed the cement, rocks, sand and water all together,” Nudell said. “While most of us were working on the foundation, some were building the frames for the walls. At the end of the day, we stacked them up, loaded up our tools into the truck and went back to the church for sloppy joes.

“We got up at 6 a.m. again, and, that day, we did most of our work. We put up the walls, we started wiring the electricity. We’re not electricians or anything, but (the Casas por Cristo representatives) just showed us how. We put in light switches, a ceiling fan, sockets and a lamp outside the house to turn on at night.

“After that, we started putting up sheet rock outside and insulation inside, and then we put on the roof and nailed the shingles down.

“On the third day, I was really sore. I actually got tendonitis in my hand. We had to make stucco and put that around the outside of the house as a thermal warming, and then we texturized it with little sponges, so it has a nicer look to it.

“Our family was so blessed when we finished, and they made us burritos. Every family cooked for us.

“After we blessed the house, we drove to the church in El Paso, and then we all showered there because we were filthy. Then we headed on home.”

Now that she’s back in Summit County, Nudell has had time to reflect on her experience in Juarez.

“You earn the knowledge of how people really live,” she said. “Even in our own county, we have (poverty), but you don’t see it as much.

“I think everybody should go out and learn what the world is like. You don’t know what you’ve got until you see the people who don’t have anything. (The students on the trip) were like, “Oh my gosh, how can people live like this?’ There was a 72-year-old man with us who said he had never seen poverty like that in his whole life.”

When asked if she would go back to Juarez next Christmas, Nudell replied, “I plan on going until I die.”

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 203, or at

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