Children end up in Sandra Martínez Mendoza’s care for a variety of reasons.
As director of Hogar Irekani orphanage in Morelia, Michoacán, she’s seen kids that have experienced abuse, neglect, poverty and their caregivers’ deaths.
The stories are as endless as they are heartbreaking: the three young children found tied all night at the orphanage door when the staff opened it to get the daily bread; the young girl abandoned by her parents because of her disfigured face; the baby rescued from her mother by the DIF family agency because the mother was suffering both mental illness and abuse from her husband.
Children who arrive at Hogar Irekani are rarely adopted, although Martínez told me about one 12-year-old boy who was adopted a year ago by an older childless couple with great success.
But for a pair of brothers in her care, the process hasn’t been successful: both were adopted and returned twice from their adoptive homes. Not surprisingly, Martínez says, the double trauma of being rejected twice has taken its toll.
Martínez began her childcare career 20 years ago, first as a worker in another orphanage in Morelia. She worked her way up the ladder to become its administrator.
Although she left there when the new director’s style differed from hers, Martínez knew that working with children was her destiny.
“It was through the children that I found my God,” she says.
Her search for a purposeful life led her to open Hogar Irekani. “Irekani” in Purépecha means “to live.”
Martínez began with 12 children nearly nine years ago, several of whom were children from her previous orphanage who were expelled for various reasons. She also took in kids from Morelia and Zihuatanejo.
Today, the orphanage has swelled to capacity, with 26 children whose ages range from 14 months to 26 years,
As the numbers have grown, so have the challenges.
“It takes 60,000 pesos to run the orphanage every month, of which US $2,000 [about 40,000 pesos] come from the El Buen Pastor Fund in Washington D.C.,” Martínez explains. The fund provides recipients with basic needs like nutrition, clothing and shoes and medical and dental care, plus school uniforms and enrichment opportunities.
But although the donations help, it is still not enough to provide for the children. And so, after she had a chance to visit a vegan restaurant in another city where she tasted this food for the first time, Martínez got an idea and opened a vegan taco stand at the orphanage on the weekends.
Taco Verde, which opened in April, has been so successful that it’s expanded to a full-service restaurant that operates from Monday through Saturday.
A professional cook and Martínez oversee the restaurant, which the children run, giving them training in many life skills such as handling money, budgeting, serving customers and making wise purchases. They also learn many practical life skills such as cleaning and cooking.
The restaurant has also inspired some of the young residents: three of them were inspired to start their own smoothie business within the restaurant, buying all the ingredients and keeping whatever profits they make.
The venture’s been successful enough that Martínez decided it was time to open a second location for the orphanage and keep the old building for their blossoming business.
The new orphanage, located about five minutes away, is lovely and bright, with two dormitories for the girls, arranged according to age, and one for the boys.
The new site’s kitchen is a cook’s dream come true, and the dining rooms can serve all occupants simultaneously, although food is sometimes doled out in shifts due to school schedules. There’s a well-stocked library with a study area, a cozy TV room and a space in the courtyard to play.
Despite these sorts of challenges, there are precious moments and memories to be made at Hogar Irekani, thanks to Martínez’s inventiveness and the generosity of people like donor Jim Conahan. Each year, Conahan and other owners of the BayView Grande Resort in Ixtapa gift the use of their condos for a full week in July so that all 28 residents can go on a vacation together, all expenses paid.
Other experiences that Martínez has arranged include a recent “princess” event in Morelia, where girls got to dress up in style and attend a special dinner with escorts.
Martínez is always looking for opportunities like these to enrich the children’s lives or to make the orphanage more viable. Her future ideas include a possible bed and breakfast or hostel in the old building, where the restaurant is currently located.
Martínez also wants to build a two-story dormitory for boys. which would cost at least 200,000 pesos. The site is already running out of space and has had to turn boys away.
The restaurant venture will hopefully help the orphanage cover expenses, but raising funds and sponsors is a priority now, Mendoza says, as needs continue to arise.
- To donate to Hogar Irekani and receive a charitable tax receipt, contact the El Buen Pastor Fund at [email protected] or send a check to El Buen Pastor Fund, P.S. Box 6, Custer WA 98240. You can also call Sandra Martínez at 443-688-4106 or 443-166-5807, email her or visit the orphanage at Amado Nervo #260, Colonia Otera, Morelia, Michoacán.
The writer divides her time between Canada and Zihuatanejo.