By JUAN DE JESUS BREENE
PUERTO, VALLARTA, Jalisco — When most people think of retired expats living in the likes of Lake Chapala, San Miguel de Allende or Puerto Vallarta, they tend to image well-heeled seniors who live several months of the year in high-end condos and villas.
Retired grandparents — abuelos, in Spanish — typically do not begin charities in their overseas vacation homes.
But then, there’s Anne Marie Weiss-Armush, who founded Vallarta Abuelos three years ago.
When she started working on the renovation of her new home in downtown Puerto Vallarta, at the time a less-than-touristy neighborhood, she got to know some of the local girls and boys during construction.
What she did not know at first was that many of the kids were at-risk, born to chemically-dependent parents, struggling single moms and oft-homeless victims of abuse.
Over time, these kids began to hang out at her home and to tell her their individual stories.
Torn by what she had heard from these children, Weiss-Armush decided to meet with some of their grandparents, who were often raising them for absentee parents.
Seeing their desperation and dire economic needs, Weiss-Armush decided to create her own philanthropic organization, Vallarta Abuelos, which has since evolved into a full-fledged and legally recognized charity serving 900 at-risk girls and boys.
Today, Weiss-Armush and her crew of retired-in-Vallarta abuelo volunteers do what every grandparent already knows how to do: make sandwiches, do craft projects, help with homework, teach English, match a child’s passions with potential future careers, hang out, give advice to parents, plan birthday parties, help with sports, go for pizza.
The group’s volunteers interact to whatever degree they choose: sponsoring a child financially from afar, helping out with larger holiday events, committing to a weekly event or class.
“It can be quite boring to retire and do nothing all day, and we offer plenty of opportunities for senior expats to stay active,” Weiss-Armush said.
The model that Abuelos de Vallarta uses is simple. The members try to look at the needs of the kids in their neighborhood and then be responsive, adapting to each child’s particular needs, whether it be a shower, a mentor, lice removal or tennis lessons.
Weiss-Armush’s home, which doubles as the organization’s physical premises, is in itself inviting. Rather than having to wait for someone to open up a door, neighbors walking down the street can see into the outside courtyard used for swimming, art classes and festivals — a sort of multipurpose room that evokes “welcome.”
The home’s big wooden doors are only closed on Sunday, and walk-ins are always received with hospitality.
The garage is where English classes are taught. The guest bedroom is a computer and homework center. The guest bathroom is where nine kids come over every night to get cleaned up since their homes have no running water.
Weiss-Armush’s kitchen is where cooking classes take place and snacks are to be had. Another room is where older kids can hang out and watch TV away from the younger ones.
Weiss-Armush’s neighbor, a retired social worker, helps out with intake and needs assessments.
And there are plenty of needs to assess, such as the bureaucratic and financial costs of getting a child registered for public school, including uniforms, supplies and medical exams.
“The high cost of public education in a system that is supposedly free was a real surprise for me,” Weiss-Armush said.
“Someone earning minimum wage would have to dedicate five months of theirentire salary just to pay the costs of high school registration for one child. For a single mom or grandmother raising a child, it’s nearly impossible, and that’s the primary reason Mexico’s drop-out rate is around 60 percent.”
This is where Abuelos de Vallarta and its network of volunteers and sponsors come in.
They seek to bridge the gap between life’s realities for at-risk kids and their end-goal: education.
Abuelos de Vallarta strictly monitors school attendance and grades.
In short, the nonprofit organization helps to fill the gaps for in-need families: feeding thousands during the covid19 pandemic, accessing medical care for untreated birth defects and obtaining dozens of donated cell phones so students can do online school work.
And like all grandparents, the Vallarta abuelos have plenty of success stories to brag about.