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Habitat for Humanity struggles to find volunteers to help build homes for the needy

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Lupita Acosta-Esparta's house burned down around Christmastime last year.

"We just came back, and it was gone," Acosta-Esparta said.

Only it wasn't what most would call a house, said Scott Noseworthy, who spearheads the Nogales, Mexico, chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Acosta-Esparta and her kids--three girls ages 3, 4 and 5, and a 12-year-old son--lived in a wooden shack that had been pieced together with scrap wood. One-door dwellings like these are firetraps. And it's all that most of the folks in Solidaridad--the colonia of Nogales where Acosta-Esparta and her kids own a tiny plot of land--live in. There's electricity, but no running water in Solidaridad.

Right now, she's set up in temporary housing provided by Habitat until her house is ready.

Her new cement-block Habitat house will stand on the same tiny plot of land, carved into a steep hill, where her old home did. The remains of the house have been hauled away to make room for the new one, which she and other Habitat families are building.

Slowly.

Acosta-Esparta's house should only take a month to finish, but it's summertime, and most of his American volunteers are college students who have gone home for a few months. Thus, Noseworthy hasn't had very many volunteers for a while.

Ava Bivens is the acting president of the UA's Habitat for Humanity club. It's true that getting volunteers to go all the way to Nogales is tough, she admitted, especially in the summer, when most students leave town. Those students who didn't leave, Bivens said, are probably taking accelerated summer classes--which leaves less free time.

Still, she said, her club is taking a crew of about four to five people to Nogales this month to work on a house.

"But you can't build a house with five people on Saturdays," Bivens said. "When you get down to the border, you see a huge difference right away. At first, it's kind of like a shock: You're like, 'That's a Third World country, like in Africa or something,' but no--it's in your backyard."

When he can't find volunteers, Noseworthy pays workers out of his pocket to help out.

Acosta-Esparta told me that she works 50 hours a week on an electrical-part assembly line, making about $16 per day. She said that's not enough, especially when her oldest son needs 50 cents to take the bus to school each day.

She then started to cry. She went back to building her home.

Over the last five years, Habitat for Humanity in Nogales has built more than 560 homes for families like Acosta-Esparta's. There are still about 100 families on the waiting list for a house. Maria Lourdes Sanchez Hernandez's family is one of them.

It's usually women--often single mothers and widows, Noseworthy said--who spend weekends building houses for each other. One Saturday in June, Hernandez slid blocks down the hill on a piece of scrap metal to her niece, Carina Enterrian. She picked them up and piled them for Acosta-Esparta to carry in the house, two at a time, into various parts of the site that will one day be her living room and bedrooms. Hernandez--along with her 20-year-old son; Enterrian; and Enterrian's husband, David Solis, 26--are waiting to have their house built in another neighborhood, Rosarito.

The houses include two to three rooms with cement walls and tin roofs. Acosta-Esparta's family was already on the waiting list when the fire happened.

Ahren Richter, 25, has been building Habitat houses in Nogales on and off since 2003, when he took a trip through Mexico.

"I saw the living conditions and wanted to help," Richter said. "Especially with how close Tucson is to Mexico. It's where I feel like I can be of the most use, like what I do there is more valuable than spending an hour at the Humane Society or something. It really changes your perspective. People here are so busy and have so much abundance; I think we lose touch. Families are really nice, hospitable, (even though) they don't have a lot of the things we have here in the U.S."

Solis and Carlos Saucedo, one of the workers Noseworthy hired on to help out, mixed concrete to fill the corners in the house between the walls. They have no equipment such as bulldozers or cement mixers, so they improvise and do the work by hand.

Families and volunteers move tons of gravel with buckets and shovels. They mix cement, water and gravel on the ground to make concrete. They carve out hillsides with pick axes to make level places for homes.

Solis--though he's working with the rest of his family to earn the 300-hour credit they need to build their house--said he's toying with the idea of sneaking back across the border again. He's already been sent back twice.

He worked in a body shop in Dallas for a while. "It was a good job," he said. But now, he misses his mother and sisters in Las Vegas, and is thinking about joining them.

Meanwhile, Noseworthy is still looking for volunteers by hanging fliers in coffee shops and placing classified ads.

"To me, it's worth it just to take one volunteer all the way down here," he said. "Because that's one person whose mind might change. People here are happy to stay in their own country; all they want is a house."

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