Gil Gillenwater: Cultural Crossroads

Easing poverty of body and soul on both sides of the border.

There's a town not far from Gil Gillenwater's home in affluent Scottsdale, Ariz., where

the average wage is $5 a day--that is, if you're one of the 50 percent who can find employment. In that border town of Agua Prieta, Mexico, 30,000 people try and fail to enter the United States every month. The result is overcrowding and homelessness, with parents often forced to leave young children in the care of older siblings as they search for shelter and jobs.

It's a cycle of poverty that Gillenwater wants to end. Thirteen years ago, he founded the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation. His mission: to keep Agua Prieta's struggling families together and provide for the neediest children. Since then, he's raised more than $1 million to support orphanages, a soup kitchen, and new home construction in Agua Prieta.

One of the foundation's primary projects is La Divina Providencia, a unique shelter for 30 orphan girls and 20 abandoned seniors. Here, and at the adjacent soup kitchen that feeds 300 people a day, school attendance is mandatory. "Education is the only thing you can give them that somebody can't take away," he says.

Gillenwater's inspiration was born at the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day in 1987 as he stared at more food than he and his family could possibly eat.

"It hit me at that moment that I lived in so much abundance," he says. "And I knew 200 miles from my home there were people who weren't eating at all."

Gillenwater and his brother, Troy, literally got up from the table, bought $2,000 worth of groceries, and drove south.

On a dirt road across the border from Douglas, Ariz., they came across a sign pointing to Rancho Feliz Orphanage. There, the brothers found a 20-year-old woman caring for eight orphaned children in a building without heat or indoor plumbing. "The children were easy to fall for, but what struck me was the young girl and her devotion to these children," he recalls. They turned over the food and returned home with a new determination to help. Their first fundraiser brought in about $10,000 to equip the facility with heat, bathrooms, and showers.

"This whole concept of borders is a bit antiquated," says Gillenwater of his cross-border mission. "All children, no matter where they live, should have access to basic needs: Heat in the winter, a place to go to the bathroom, a place to take a shower, and most important, love and security so they don't have to be afraid."

The foundation has since invested more than $400,000 in La Divina and the nearby Naco orphanage, expanding existing structures, building dormitories, installing indoor plumbing, and adding luxuries such as basketball courts and gardens. Combined, La Divina and Naco house about 80 children, and Gillenwater's mission to help the children still holds strong. But that's only half the story.

As friends and relatives returned from Agua Prieta, where they'd helped build bathrooms or distribute food, "they felt they were returning with much more than they'd taken down--myself included," he recalls. "By allowing us to serve, the people of Agua Prieta enabled us to solve our poverty of purpose."

Gillenwater capitalized on the phenomenon he calls reciprocal giving by building a 4,000-square-foot dormitory for 60 volunteers and developing an exchange program to give volunteers a chance to serve. The program drew more than 1,000 people last year.

But labor isn't Agua Prieta's greatest need: It's funding. "Access to capital is really my company's forte," says Gillenwater. Many of his contacts in the investment world are also donors to Rancho Feliz. Last year alone, the foundation raised more than $250,000.

Gillenwater is still delighted by the individual successes. Recently, he helped a girl with an abscessed tooth get dental treatment in the United States. She'd been in pain for two years--and two hours after the operation, she was a new person. "My greatest joy is seeing these borders broken down," he says. "Now I guarantee her life is changed because she has an expanded vision of what she can do."

How to contact Gil Gillenwater:

SDI Group
6910 E. 5th Ave.
Scottsdale, Ariz. 85251
tel: 480/946-3000, ext. 15
fax: 480/946-9000

Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation
6910 E. 5th Ave.
Scottsdale, Ariz. 85251
tel: 480/946-3000, ext. 15
fax: 480/946-9000