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By Carol M. Karimi
Two Saturdays each month, Laura Schmitz can be found on a bus to Baja California, headed to one of 50 orphanages in a Mexican state that is literally overflowing with unwanted children.
Schmitz doesn't speak Spanish, but for the last four years the elementary school teacher has taken volunteer trips with Corazón de Vida, a nonprofit that provides ongoing assistance and support for as many needy children in Baja California as possible.
Troubled orphanages are a fact of life in Baja, where well-meaning families who take in unwanted children often find themselves running a home for as many as 75 or 100 kids before long. Since it was founded by a former orphanage resident and two Californians, Corazón de Vida has grown to support over 700 orphans a day with funding, food, and the support of dedicated volunteers like Schmitz.
It was at one of these orphanages that Schmitz met Julia, a 12-year-old girl with a smile die for and a story that would break even the toughest of hearts.
"Her mother is an addict and she doesn't know her father. Her grandmother never comes because she simply does not have the time. But I feel special and needed in her life," said Schmitz.
Rather than a barrier, Schmitz says language has been a bridge for understanding and connecting. Schmitz now hopes to become fluent in Spanish.
"I'm not a Spanish speaker and she's not an English speaker," she said. "I told her she is my Spanish teacher which makes her feel good."
The good news is that Schmitz is by no means alone in her volunteering. Corazón de Vida's bus trips, which depart from four cities in Southern California, regularly fill up weeks in advance. On a given trip, each crew might play, work on craft projects, read with the children, help with a building project or simply hold an infant who needs love.
In addition to her frequent trips, Schmitz also keeps Corazón de Vida's MySpace page updated and maintains their online newsletter, which currently has over 3,000 subscribers.
Like so many volunteers, Schmitz learned to give at home. "My mom always had my siblings and I collected food for the needy and donated clothes to local shelters," she said.
During her visit over Christmas, Schmitz says she was ready to surprise Julia with some gifts. But she was even more surprised when she received one in return – a pink stuffed animal shaped like a poodle.
"She was so proud to give me this gift. She hid it behind her back and I closed my eyes. I was so touched," she recalled.
And does Schmitz have advice for others who are considering jumping into service?
"Everyone in this world should volunteer or give back on some level," she said. "Think about what interests you… and find an organization that supports that interest!"
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