Q & A with Morgan Smith

Morgan Smith is a freelance writer and photographer whose work can be found in the Denver Post, Santa Fe New Mexican, Denver Business Journal, New Mexico Business Journal, El Paso Inc., New Mexico Mercury and La Voz Colorado among others.

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By Virginia Isaad

  1. Juarez has a reputation as an impoverished war-torn city and yet you’ve written about and visited places like Vision in Action, El Árbol de Vida, and Reto a la Juventud. What do you think about the fact that such places exist in the midst of such violence and poverty?

What I discovered some five years ago is that there are a handful of very heroic and dedicated people who are committed to helping others, no matter what the danger to them might be. My first encounter was with a Mexican woman named Martina Ontiveros who had lived in Santa Fe but went to Palomas to live in and volunteer at an orphanage named La Casa de Amor Para Ninos. When I asked her if she was afraid – it was very dangerous in Palomas at the time – she simply said that this was her mission. The same is true for people like Elenita Porras at Reto a la Juventud or Pastor Galvan or Dr. Vicente Pantoja or many others I have met. It’s their personal dedication that keeps these programs going.

  1. What stands out to you the most when you visit such places? Why?

The physical conditions of these places is usually not what we would expect in the US but the spirit and the sense of optimism and caring is always extraordinary and I very much enjoy being a part of it and also trying to publicize it.

  1. Through the years, how has the government’s involvement changed, if at all? Has there been an increase in donations and awareness through the media?

I don’t see any additional government presence in the areas I go to. Traveling through poor colonias in Juarez, for example, I just don’t see the presence of whatever social services they might have. Pretty much all I see is the presence of these private, non profit humanitarian groups.

That’s a neutral comment, suggesting, for example, that the government does little for the poor. On the negative side, one on going frustration is the way the Mexican customs officials hinder the work of these organizations by often blocking them from bringing in food or clothing or building materials for housing construction.

  1. Have you ever seen or heard of a place like Vision in Action? What is it about patients caring for one another that seems to work in this case?

I have probably visited Vision in Action 60 or 70 times in the last 4 plus years and am always amazed at how effective many of the patients – some like Elia who can’t even talk coherently – are at calming and consoling others. It’s evidence that even people who are deeply disturbed or have committed serious crimes can and do respond to affection and an environment of caring. This is an important lesson for our US mental facilities where there are very strict rules about patients are allowed to do.

The basis of this is Pastor Galvan and his insistence that his patients be treated with dignity and the many things he does to treat them as we would treat people without illnesses. For example, I was there on February 14 when several patients got married.

  1. Do you think if organizations like Vision in Action had governmental aid that they would sustain the system as is? What you seem to be most in awe of is how the patients help each other but if more money were to come in that would probably change. How do you feel about that?

I was a member of the Colorado House of Representatives many years and Chairman of the budget committee. As a result, I came to know many state programs in the social services area. Although funding was always important, what set the really good ones apart was leadership, not money. Vision in Action would stay the same if it had government support but only if it had the leadership of someone like a Galvan. How do you find that leadership? That’s the tough question.

Last, I would add that these characteristics – providing work which makes people feel productive, organizing the same kinds of events that “normal” people have such as the wedding I mentioned, showing affection, focusing on dignity – seem intangible as compared to, for example, therapy sessions in US facilities but they work. So Galvan is not only responsible for the survival of his patients but he has also given us some new insights on what it takes to change human behavior.

Read Morgan Smith’s previous guest post on Vision in Action here

About virginiaisaad

Virginia is a journalist based in Los Angeles who's written for publications including Los Angeles magazine, Upworthy, and Elite Daily. She was born in Argentina and raised in the San Fernando Valley along with her three siblings. Fun fact: She took a Chicanas and Feminism course with Eva Longoria while studying for her master's in mass communication at California State University, Northridge. Follow her on Twitter @virginiaisaad

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