“They’d start looking at me as if I was a survivor of a war zone,” says Garcia, who heard similar stories from his hometown friends who are also professionals in NYC. “[We] would all be asked, ‘How is your family? Are they still alive?’ It was something, we said, we needed to do something about.”
And that’s exactly what they did.
Three and a half years ago, a group of about 20 professionals — from lawyers to artists — living in NYC, but originally from the Juarez/El Paso area, started meeting in coffee shops to discuss how they could make a difference in their hometown widely known for its drug-related border violence which has killed nearly 7,000 people in the past six years and forced thousands of young people to leave school. Now a group that has grown to more than 30 members, Project Paz is now holding its third annual fundraiser to help nearly 2,000 kids in Juarez. The money raised there and through the online auction, from art sold by approximately 70 prominent and up-and-coming artists, will go towards funding after-school programs to protect children, ages 5 to 15, from the danger in the streets.
“We felt this had to stop,” says Garcia, who explains the goals of Project Paz include raising awareness, changing the perception of Mexico, and raising money for the children of Juarez. “Our first event reached 8 million viewers through media coverage all over the world…Then other organizations around the world reached out and wanted to help and be a part of it…We act as a channel.”
Another Project Paz volunteer based in NYC, Adal Gutierrez, says the idea started with very small scale activities, like collecting soccer balls.
“Little by little, friends joined us and started developing a whole fashion and art component,” he says, adding this was the way they decided to raise the funds. “All of a sudden, we had a huge event with a board and committee. None of us came from a fundraising field. Nobody gets paid. All of the money we fund goes directly to the project.”
Gutierrez says last year the group raised $140,000, which allowed them to support 11 schools in Juarez. After this upcoming fundraiser, they hope to double the number of schools they can help next year.
“They get a class with a professor that helps them do their homework and karate, soccer, music, arts and crafts,” says Gutierrez. “They get a meal and stay in school until their family comes to pick them up. We try to keep children safe from the environment…We want to open their eyes to see what else is out there.”
Gutierrez, a graphic designer and communications professional, says he was just in Juarez about a month ago to visit three of the schools Project Paz is helping.
“I got to see this side of the organization that many living in NY don’t get to see,” he says. “When I was down there, I saw them do [karate] lessons, and it was impressive to see how into the class the boys and girls were…I saw they enjoyed the discipline.”
For this year’s fundraiser, he says Project Paz was able to invite many artists and curators to donate a piece. There is also a fashion component in which invited designers, such as Narciso Rodriguez and Carolina Herrera, donate their own photography, inspired by Mexico, to sell for the cause.
Garcia says he’s already seeing tangible hope for the future thanks to their communal efforts.
“In the next five years, you’re going to see a big change from [Juarez] being one of the most dangerous cities to one of the safest cities in the world,” he says. “That’s what it used to be. It was a booming place, and that’s where I grew up. You didn’t have to worry about walking across the street and getting shot.”
He says restaurants are open now, and businesses are back.
“Three years ago, you didn’t have a place to go to dinner because everything was closed,” says Garcia. “It’s changing now…the community is getting together. That’s the way to fix the problem…What makes the problem better is when every family there is more careful and more protective, and they develop values in their children. What we focus on is value development.”
Gutierrez adds they will be continuing their work for the children.
“We believe they are the future of Mexico,” he says. “[We want] to give them opportunities that we grew up with, but they don’t have the opportunity.”
Garcia agrees, and hopes Project Paz also inspires others to remember their roots, and give back to those who are less fortunate.
“We are saying we care,” says Garcia. “Even though we live in NY, we are Mexicans. We aren’t the only ones helping. We’re just a small piece…That’s what counts.”