MONTERREY, Mexico — Stranded in the mountains on the outskirts of industrialized Monterrey is a sprawling slum called Alianza Reál. The shantytown is home to 40,000 Mexicans, most of them displaced persons. Ten thousand children attend school in a building no larger than Connecticut Hall. They live without plumbing or sanitation. The nicest homes are cinder-block cubes; the rest are made of cardboard, scrap metal and corrugated tin.
It was here that 60 Yale alumni and current students arrived earlier this month for the Association of Yale Alumni’s service tour, bringing with them a small tent city and a host of programs that transformed the slum for the duration of their stay.
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The volunteers ran a medical clinic, built two playgrounds and offered a range of educational sessions in Alianza Reál, including classes on yoga, visual and performing arts, soccer, martial arts, cooking, and academic subjects like math and English. In the nearby neighborhood of Eulalio Villareál, alumni offered advice about small business development and training for local psychologists.
The tour in Mexico was organized in conjunction with the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education and the Consejo de Desarrollo Social, the social services institute for the Mexican state of Nuevo León. The program coincided with Yale Week in Mexico, in which several Yale professors, the Yale Whiffenpoofs and the Yale Concert Band traveled to Mexico City and Monterrey to raise the University’s profile in Latin America.
Service tour coordinator Remy Shaber ’98 said AYA chose to coordinate with Tec and the Consejo to expand the impact of their work.
“The Consejo is permanently active in this community,” Shaber said. “That infrastructure will allow some projects to continue.”
The Consejo spent several months assessing the needs of Alianza Reál prior to the Yale group’s arrival in preparation for the creation of a community center there, which will open at the end of this month. The Consejo has already built numerous community centers in other neighborhoods in Nuevo León, including Eulalio Villareál.
Despite the Consejo’s efforts, programs in Alianza Reál will not continue on the same level now that the Yale group has departed. Stephanie Levy MED ’06, who worked in the medical clinics, described the amount of need in the community as “overwhelming.” She said she hopes Yale will organize another trip to Alianza Reál in the future.
“That’s how you make a difference — by continuing to return,” she said.
Although the difficulties facing the community of Alianza Reál are enormous, the three alumni and two students interviewed said they felt the trip was a success. Stefanie Toise SPH ’91, who taught yoga and relaxation as a way to confront health risks related to stress, said the local women identified the yoga as a valuable tool for improving their physical and mental well-being.
“They saw that yoga was something they could use that didn’t cost them anything,” she said, adding that the women requested continued yoga classes once the community center opens.
The week of service concluded March 13 in a closing ceremony in which Yale’s volunteers and leaders of the community exchanged pictures and other gifts.
“The most important gifts are the gifts of the heart, which you have shared with all of our Yale community members who have been here this week,” University Secretary Linda Lorimer said at the ceremony. “The gifts of the heart, though, have been matched with gifts of the hands and gifts of the head. Together they have made gifts of friendship.”
The Yale Concert Band (of which one of the reporters is a member) arrived to close the program, appearing in black-tie concert dress with polished instruments before a crowd that had never seen either a tuxedo or a musical instrument before.
Before long, children who had never heard a band before were conducting one. The band’s director, Thomas Duffy, started passing out batons to the children, who wildly imitated his conductor’s flourishes.
“I don’t know if you realize the impact you had on these kids,” AYA director Mark Dollhopf told the band afterward. “They’re mesmerized by you guys. For them to sit still for this long, that doesn’t happen very often.”
After the ceremony, the Yalies returned to their five-star hotel in Monterrey. Their tour buses were escorted by an armored police car; after nightfall in Alianza Reál, the gangs come out.
The first AYA Service Tour took place last spring in the Dominican Republic. The next trip, which will take place this coming fall, will focus on agriculture and sustainability in the Brazilian rainforest, Shaber said.
Isaac Arnsdorf reported from Monterrey, Mexico, and Nora Caplan-Bricker from New Haven.