CONCORD -- Concord Rotarians turned the idea of a service trip on its head when residents from an impoverished region of Mexico came to the relatively affluent Bay Area to volunteer.
But the Rotarians from Mexico that came here July 17 to participate in a painting project consider it an honor to strengthen a relationship with Concord that started years ago.
For five years, the Rotary Club of Concord has been working hard in Zacoalco de Torres, a village south of Guadalajara, Mexico.
One year, Concord Rotarians drove a minibus, with a handicap lift on it, more than 1,900 miles to the village.
"When we got there, we determined there was a number of other things we could do," said Alex Ozuna, a Concord Rotarian who oversees their projects in Latin America. Ozuna is a second-generation American whose grandparents were from Mexico. He speaks Spanish fluently.
The wheelchair minibus the Concord Rotarians took to the village wasn't much use if the disabled villagers didn't have a wheelchair. So they took 500 wheelchairs to the residents.
Then they had another problem: there were no wheelchair ramps in the village. So their next project was sponsoring and constructing wheelchair ramps.
The rural area had an agriculturally focused high school. But the school had no lab equipment. So Concord Rotarians donated state-of-the-art lab equipment. The school didn't have enough water either, so they donated a 6,000-gallon water tank.
There was also a special-needs school in the village that needed computers and teaching aids. Concord Rotarians stepped up to bat for those, too.
When the Concord group started providing the charitable contributions, members of the Zacoalco Rotary Club, which worked with them side-by-side in Mexico, started asking if they could visit Concord to return the favor.
"I loved the idea of being in partnership and brotherhood with Concord," said Dr. Rojelio Sastre, a general practitioner physician in Zacoalco.
The paperwork and planning involved in getting approval for their visit was daunting. They needed visas and passports. It took a personal letter from Ozuna and interviews by immigration officials making sure they didn't plan to stay illegally. Only one Mexican Rotarian was denied entry due to a technicality.
It was also difficult to find the right kind of project in Concord. It couldn't be at schools because unions didn't want outside people taking work away. But a project was found and the trip finally became a reality. Concord Rotarians opened their homes to the visitors.
The Mexican Rotarians' charitable contribution was a house painting project, in which three men and three women -- one doctor, two teachers, a cable station manager, minimart owner and rancher -- were assisted by local Rotary club members.
Working together, they finished the project on time.
"They showed up and we had a pretty tight schedule," said Ozuna. "We had to complete two houses in two days."
"It was a memorable experience to make this trip to do a service project in America," said Adriana Encarnacion, the vice president of the cattleman's association in her area of Mexico.
After the visitors finished the painting project, Ozuna took them on a day trip to San Francisco, and then the next day they attended the Concord Rotary meeting to learn from them how they run their group.
Concord Rotarians will continue to strengthen the bond with their counterpart in Zacoalco de Torres as they plan their next service project.