Good Neighbor Gil Gillenwater: Shaping Lives Along the Border

Good Neighbor Awards: Where are they now?

For 23 years, 2000 Good Neighbor Award Winner Gil Gillenwater has been crossing the Arizona border to a desperate Mexican town to help end the cycle of poverty.

It started in 1987, when Gil and his brother Troy wrapped up their lives of abundance and unfolded them in order to launch the Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation. They formed a lifeline to provide shelter, food, clothing, education, and health care to abandoned children along the border in Agua Prieta, Mexico.

Making a Difference

More than two decades later, Gillenwater continues to offer hope to residents of Agua Prieta and is a favorite of the shelters’ children during his many trips to Mexico. In January 2010, the final part of the Vecinos Dignos Sin Fronteras (Worthy Neighbors Without Borders) building, a 5,000-square-foot education and recreation center, was finished. This building completed a community of 42 homes where approximately 158 people reside in the friendly subdivision that occupies 3.5 acres. Along with the houses, the foundation’s 10,000 square foot child care facility is operating at capacity with 162 children a day.

Gillenwater says his motivation comes from his desire to save children from suffering. “We see the world in the eyes of these little kids. They're three and four years old, they're splashing in the puddles, and their eyes are bright, then they're five and six and their eyes aren't quite as bright anymore, and then by the time they're 10, 11, and 12, their eyes are flat and darting — like those of hunted animals on the knife edge of survival. Education is the key focus in transforming this country,” says Gillenwater. 

Rancho Feliz funds three university and 40 high school scholarships. In addition, Rancho Feliz has entered into a partnership with the Colegio Americano Anais, a private bilingual school in Agua Prieta operating under the same educational standards as American schools, to fund the annual $2,400 tuition for 60 kids aged three to 14 years old.

Gillenwater proudly describes two of the many children who have escaped the quicksand of despair as a result of educational opportunities provided by Rancho Feliz.

Reyes Zagaste, a sophomore at Brophy College Preparatory in Arizona, is the first Mexican national to attend Brophy and has a 3.94 grade point average. Reyes’ dream is to return to Mexico where he can use his education to make much needed changes in his native country.

Nayeli Areli currently is a junior at Tecnológico de Monterey, one of Mexico’s finest universities. She is a member of the school’s cheerleader squad and currently maintains an 8.9 grade point average on a scale of 10.0. And like Reyes, Nayeli’s dream is to use her education to make her country a better place.

“As for me, why do I put so much energy into education? I do it selfishly for if and when I need major surgery, it very well could be Reyes or Nayeli performing the operation,” says Gillenwater.

Over the Years

The 2000 Good Neighbor Award had a profound impact on the success of Rancho Feliz, says Gillenwater. Not only did the national exposure translate into monetary donations, but it also resulted in Gillenwater being asked to speak at several statewide real estate offices and conventions. Soon he had volunteer groups from all over the state of Arizona, and even nationally, coming to Agua Prieta to help the less fortunate while at the same time feeding their own souls with the nourishment of purpose.

“I will always be grateful for the Good Neighbor Award recognition and positive effect it had on my charitable organization — so will the thousands of individuals whose lives have been forever changed do to this special honor,” says Gillenwater.

Since then, Gillenwater and a thousand volunteers have continued their commitment to Agua Prieta. For almost two years, they’ve been booked every weekend with volunteer groups who want to help. “The way to feel better with oneself is making other people feel better about themselves,” says Gillenwater.

Over the years, Rancho Feliz has employed many exciting events to generate interest and donations. In 2009, in “Ride the Rez,” 40 bicyclists and 30 support personnel went into the history books by completing the first ever five-day, 350-mile mountain bike ride across the Navajo Nation of northern Arizona.

Another program operated under Rancho Feliz’s charitable umbrella is the Mexico Mutts Program. The Mexico Mutts Program was established to reduce the suffering of homeless, neglected, and abused dogs through spaying or neutering, rescue and adoption, and public education. Currently the program’s primary focus is funding compassionate euthanasia and mobile sterilization units. Mexico Mutts Program distributes literature and teaches responsible pet ownership.

“At Rancho Feliz we do not believe in welfare. Rather, we believe in the democratic redistribution of opportunity,” says Gillenwater.

To learn more about Gil Gillenwater, read his profile in REALTOR® Magazine.

Or, contact him at SDI Group, 6910 E. 5th Ave., Scottsdale, Ariz., 85251; 480-946-3000 ext. 15,

Contact Rancho Feliz Charitable Foundation at 6910 E. 5th Ave., Scottsdale, Ariz., 85251; 480-946-3000 ext. 15,