If I Had a Hammer

Read about this teenage author’s two volunteer trips to build homes for people in Tijuana, Mexico.


My family once visited a family in Tanzania whose house was made of cow dung. After our visit, my parents explained that to many people our own house would not only be unfamiliar, but would even seem like magic. For example, we drive up to our house in a car, push a button and a wall moves to allow us to drive inside. Or, we flip a switch and light chases away the darkness.

A year ago, my friend Jenny invited me to Mexico with her family on a church trip to build houses for the poor. I remembered the Tanzanian family in the dung hut, and how I resolved to make a difference in the world, so I accepted her invitation for this experiential travel opportunity. During spring break, we drove from the San Francisco area to Tijuana and found ourselves among the city’s poorest residents, building houses.

Basic Construction

Throughout the poverty-stricken city of Tijuana, many people live in houses of little more than scraps of plywood nailed together with a tarp draped across the top for a roof. Most consist of one or two small rooms, many without plumbing or electricity.  

Our group of about 80 volunteers was split into four teams with the goal of building four simple houses for families selected by Amor Ministries, a San Diego–based community service organization. Each team had an experienced captain to supervise building and teach inexperienced team members the basics, and a Spanish speaker to communicate with the resident families.

Building the houses was hard work. Amor Ministries has a policy of using only tools readily available to those we served—no power tools allowed. That meant everything was done by hand—from mixing cement to sawing lumber.  

Our own living conditions were basic—we brought our own tents and camped on a site that had previously been a gravel pit. Some of the volunteers stayed at the campsite during the day to cook meals for everyone. Each morning they served breakfast, provided sandwich materials so everyone could pack a lunch and every evening they served dinner.  

The houses we built were simple, pre-designed homes with no plumbing or electricity. Each house consisted of one large room with a cement slab floor, two windows, a door, a simple tar-and-shingle roof and a stucco exterior. The interior walls were left unfinished. Each house took four days to build.

Despite the hard work, or perhaps because of it, the experience meant a great deal to me, and I convinced my entire family to go on a house-building trip the following winter break.

Working With Families

My family chose to travel with Charity Anywhere, a Utah–based group that organizes building trips to Mexico and occasionally other locations, in addition to medical and dental projects in Ecuador and Peru. Though both trips I took had the same ideas in mind—building for the poor of Tijuana—the experiences I had with the two groups were very different.

With Charity Anywhere, instead of camping in tents, everyone stayed in unused rooms in a small hospital and brought their own sleeping gear so they could sleep on the floor. Instead of strictly building one-room stucco houses, each team of volunteers assisted according to the needs of the family they were helping, with an emphasis on improving existing structures where possible.

For example, my team tore down, rebuilt and insulated a room of a house because the mother of the family was bedridden and needed a warmer room to live in. Other teams repaired and replaced roofs and built housing units in a school for disabled children. Two teams built complete houses from the ground up. As a whole, around 80 volunteers, a mix of four families and college students, worked alongside the family members for whom the construction was benefiting.

Read Page 2 for Voluntourism Opportunities.

Voluntourism Opportunities

Volunteer travel opportunities, also known as voluntourism, have grown in recent years as people have gained awareness of world problems and have wanted to couple that awareness with travel. Do an online search for “volunteer travel” to find pages of search results of numerous organizations dedicated to these kinds of opportunities. Such trips can be as short as one week or as long as several months.

The two organizations I worked with charge about $100 per day, per person, for the experience to cover food and shelter for volunteers and pay for building materials. This is not typical, however. Habitat for Humanity trips, excluding airfare, average $140 to $170 per day, per person depending on location, and some organizations cost even more.

Though the construction was difficult work, it was well worth it when the families we helped thanked us for what we had done as they prepared to move into their new shelter. I enjoyed getting to know the Mexican family members we worked with.

It seemed impossible that a family could live a hut made of cow dung until I saw it. Likewise, before I went to Tijuana for the first time, it seemed impossible that gut-wrenching poverty could exist just south of the U.S. border. For those we served in Tijuana, perhaps having a roof over their heads provides a little magic. Being a small part of making a difference in their lives was magical for me. 

Destinations: Tijuana

Themes: Family Travel, Experiential Travel

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