In the summer of 1989 Jerry Cassity traveled to Guatemala on a short-term mission trip. The following year Jerry and Ken Vanderhye, both residents of Lansing, IL and members of First Reformed Church in the same town traveled on another mission trip – this time to the town of Vicente Guerrero, a small dusty town located on the Baja Peninsula in the San Quintin Valley, Baja California,. Little did they know that over the next 25 years they would make over 50 trips to the same town – flying into San Diego, then traveling by van to cross the Tijuana/San Ysidro border checkpoint and continuing on a 5-7 hour journey on bumpy, dusty and often dirt roads to reach their destination.
It was on this first trip that the two came in contact with Dr. Oscar Herrera and his wife, Teresa. Dr. Herrera ran Clinic Santa Maria, an under-staffed, bare bones clinic with rusty beds, very little equipment and none of the modern technology available back home in the States. They spent their days working in the clinic with Dr. Herrera watching as he and his staff administered care with what little they had.
During their time with Dr. Herrera they visited the “paper camp” – a ramshackle camp which housed hundreds of migrant workers who were trucked in annually, sometimes traveling as long as 24 hours, paid as little as $5 a day, to harvest the strawberries, broccoli, peppers, and tomatoes that grow in the rich agricultural area. While there, they encountered children playing amidst open sewage, families sleeping in 10 foot huts made of cardboard, sleeping and eating on dirt floors.
Witnessing the living conditions at the paper camp, the lack of adequate medical care and the general poverty of the area the two were changed and hooked. With what they knew to be a call of God they flew home and resolved that they could and would make a difference. Using his contacts as Director of Nuclear Medicine at St. Mary’s hospital, Ken reached out to hospitals, physicians and medical supply companies. Jerry, a supervisor with NIPSCO, made calls to find transport for whatever medical equipment they could lay their hands on. With the help of Rory Melendes, an RN from the N.W. Indiana area, and a group of 17 committed young adults and adults from their church, they loaded a 53 foot North American Van Lines trailer filled with hospital beds, lab equipment, surgical supplies, x-ray processors, defibrillators and medicine and headed to San Diego where they would unload and make arrangements for final delivery to Dr. Herrera and the clinic. They returned from that delivery and in July of 1991 incorporated Medi-Mex, Inc. – Medical Equipment Distributors in Mexico. They have traveled to the area every year since.
The following year, the three organized groups of volunteers with the focus remaining on medical relief – working at the clinic with Dr. Herrera, visiting the camps – providing food, medical care, clothing, blankets, shoe-boxes filled with toiletries, a toy for the children and of course, Bibles.
In the late 90’s they crossed paths with Casa Hogar Bienvenidos (Welcome Home Orphanage) and began building homes for families known to and recommended by the orphanage. In the early years the volunteer groups which number from 7 – 18 people, stayed in the upstairs rooms at the clinic. Medi-Mex now rents rooms at the orphanage providing extra income and food while getting the added benefit of interacting with the children. To date they have built 12 homes, a mechanics garage and a community center and continue to work with the clinic, ministering to the medical, physical and spiritual needs of the children and adults in the area. Over the years Medi-Mex has arranged for 15 children to travel to the U.S. for needed surgeries, staying with families of friends of the organization for as short as 6 months and as long as 18 months.
Things have changed in the area over the last 25 years. Workers in the field now make $9 a day and may soon see that amount double; the run-down clinic is now a 3-story hospital; children are fed and clothed at Welcome Home. In another partnership with The Good Samaritan Senior Care Facility, Medi-Mex provides food to the elderly who have found a place to live when there is no place else to go. But – children still go to bed hungry, parents and grandparents still hope that the lives their children live will be better and easier than the lives they’ve had. Some things are universal.
25 years later two guys who saw a need and answered a call have had quite an impact. Ken and Jerry are the constants but couldn’t have done it without the groups of volunteers who provide medical care, carpentry work, the human touch. There are those at home who never travel to the Baja but provide funds, materials, accounting services or legal advice and really make it all possible.