Soft spoken and matter of fact, Paula Claussen is the most unlikely of contractors.
And yet, for the past 20 years she’s been helping people build homes in Mexico through Project Mercy, a non-profit organization she formed in 1991 after a visit south of the border with a friend.
“When I saw the conditions that people were living in, I thought perhaps I could do something to help,” said the British-born Claussen, a retired travel agent who’s lived in the Rancho Arbolitos area off and on for 30 years.
She started by taking items to Mexico and handing them out to those in need. After a short while, she decided to collect everything she was going to donate and hold a garage sale instead. With the money raised, she was able to fund the construction of a small room to an existing 10-by-12-foot shack where she says an old woman slept on a piece of carpet on the dirt floor.
“And so we gave her a solid floor and enlarged the house slightly and, of course, eventually managed to get her a bed,” she said. “If you can do it once, you can do it again. And the need was great.”
It’s not just the elderly who are in need of adequate shelter throughout the colonias found east of Tijuana where Claussen visits. She recalls finding a 4-year-old sleeping on a blanket in a plastic bathtub, and homes being infested by bugs, spiders and rodents because they’re built directly on top of dirt. The shanties are constructed so flimsily that rain and wind go right through them in the winter and, on a numerous occasions, babies have died from the cold.
Many of the people she helps are undereducated and without work. If they are employed, it’s locally in the maquiladoras, but hours have been cut as a result of the trickle-down financial issues affecting the United States. She says those who travel from the interior of Mexico in search of work often don’t have birth certificates because they were born during a time when it wasn’t necessary and now can’t get a job without one.
“I don’t think people understand the standard and how hard things are to survive,” Claussen said.
Before the recession of 2008, she says public support and funding of Project Mercy was huge. According to Claussen, it’s still “quite large,” but fewer people are interested in traveling to Mexico since the media’s close coverage of the Tijuana drug wars.
“We have never been touched,” she said of her groups of volunteers that average about 15 people at a time. “In fact, we feel very safe and very protected by the people in the area.”
So safe, that when Claussen’s son was 1, she would strap him in the car seat and bring him along if she had no other baby-sitting alternatives. Some of the volunteers bring their children, who are usually around age 10 when they can listen responsibly. And while members of her family have never been directly involved in Project Mercy, she’s gotten their help through their emotional support.
“I’ve always been a rather strong, independent person,” she said. “My family knows who I am and has always known who I am. I like to see projects completed.”
Since it’s now illegal to bring clothing and other donation items across the border, and it’s difficult to transfer the building materials needed for each project, the organization purchases everything in Mexico. It serves to help the economy, but also proves a little more expensive since the materials are originally produced in the United States.
According to Claussen, each house costs $3,900 to build, and $600 more is needed if an outhouse is included in the building plan. She’s created a system based on sweat equity, where members of a specific colonia will only get a house of their own if they’ve helped build a house for their neighbor.
“Everyone seems to pull together and share what they have,” Claussen said. “The sweat equity part of the project definitely builds better communities.”
For funding, Project Mercy relies on donations as well as support through grants, which Claussen took courses to learn how to write. It’s just one of the reasons she calls herself a “one-man band,” despite the assistance received from her seven-member board. She still remembers her first grant—it was $5,000 and came from none other than Paul Newman and the Points of Light Institute.
“He personally signed the check, so that was a good start,” she said.
Having retired as a travel agent 12 years ago, helping the people of Mexico is now Claussen’s full-time job. The next big thing on the agenda is the 12th annual Baja Challenge in October, an event in which San Diego’s real estate and building-related industries join to build homes for impoverished families in an area of Mexico known as Colonia Sonora. Volunteers aren’t needed for that particular event, though they are welcome to join in the various other groups that head south.
And while she laughs when asked what she does in her spare time, it’s her passion that keeps the momentum going. She finds it hard to pinpoint the most rewarding aspect, but after a pause says it’s seeing the joys the recipients’ faces when they’re given the keys to a brand-new house and realize it’s all theirs.
“This has obviously been my life’s work. I’ve put my heart and soul into it,” Claussen said. “The rest of the world needs help, but this is right here.”