by Laurel Way
Last week, I took a trip to Naco, Sonora Mexico to meet with Tom Carlson, the President and Executive Director of the Naco Wellness Initiative. While down there, I was able to tour their community garden and wellness center which provides a multitude of medical and wellness services to the local residents of Naco. This includes diabetic testing, wellness exams, exercise classes, physical therapy, and food supply.
Naco, Sonora is a small border town with a high poverty rate and sparse resources. In 2017, the U.S. Border Patrol erected an 18-foot-tall metal fence that resembles more of a prison wall than a protective barrier. This wall disrupted the community of Naco on both sides of the fence and created a disparity in access to healthcare and basic wellness services. But more than that, it divided the community and as the walls went up, the infrastructure of the town began to crumble.
Naco Wellness Initiative has grown to meet the needs of the people on both sides of the fence. They have two locations, one is the wellness center and the other is the community garden. Their primary focus right now is on diabetic testing, wellness education, and providing healthy food options to those who need it through their garden. Many people in Naco suffer from a poor diet which leads to diabetes, heart disease, and a myriad of complications. Tom Carlson and his team, are hoping to curb those diseases with fresh healthy vegetables and a center where people can get blood glucose tests and physical therapy.
Naco Community Garden
I visited the community garden first and when I arrived, I was immediately in awe of what they have accomplished in less than 2 years. The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona has helped this organization throughout its concept and growth with funding through grants, and support.
The community garden sits on an acre of land, surrounded by flat, dusty fields. It is an oasis in the desert, with green vegetables and fruits growing in well-tended soil. Tom introduced me to their Directora, Lupita Sanchez, and we walked together through the rows of crops as they explained how they were able to grow in such a barren land. They recently built an underground cistern, which holds a large volume of water. This allows them to have water on hand at all times and to regulate the flow and supply to their crops through their complex watering system. The garden is broken into multiple zones, and an irrigation system flows to each one with its own shut-off valves. The system is made to optimize and target water use to certain crops depending on the time of year. Therefore, they can grow crops nearly year-round.
As we walked toward the back of the property, Tom pointed out these tall, steel trellises and said “That is what your recent grant has built.” I looked up at the towering trellises as he explained that they will be used for cucumbers and squash that are too heavy on the vine to support on the ground. This section of the garden will be able to grow larger crops, and in turn, feed more people.
To the left of the trellises, stood a brand new greenhouse, still in the process of being erected. This greenhouse will become a teaching facility in partnership with ASU’s agricultural department. It will allow them to grow during the dry, cold winter months, and offer opportunities for students to learn new ways of growing in harsh conditions. The garden is also host to local schools where kids can participate in planting, growing, and harvesting the fields. They even have a worm farm for those who like to get dirty in the soil.
Naco Wellness Center
Next, we traveled to the Wellness center, which is located within spitting distance of the border fence. When I walked into the center I was immediately invited in with a warm, chile smell, as they prepared lunch in their open kitchen for their neighbors. Many of the people that come to the center are older or living alone, and this weekly meal gives them a chance to feel like a part of a family. The room was joyous as neighbors sat down to play a game before lunch in the large open space. Lupita explained that open space is used for many different activities, such as Zumba classes, physical and massage therapy, lunches, games, and festivities. While my Spanish is very limited, I didn’t need to know what they said to know that this center is important to them.
Before I left, I asked Lupita and Tom, what was something they wanted the people of our diocese to know about. They both said, “Come and See.” So often, Naco has a reputation for being an impoverished and dangerous town. But the heart of this town is so much more, and their passion and dedication for helping others extend far beyond their borders. They invite us all to see the true spirit of life in the Sonoran desert and how we can come together no matter what divides us.
If you are interested in supporting the Naco Wellness Center and Garden, you can view ways to get involved through their website at https://www.nacowellness.org/. Right now, they are in need of medical supplies for the facility, and they accept monetary donations online. You can stay up to date on their Facebook page, and even schedule a visit for your church group by filling out their contact form on their website.
This was an incredible and eye-opening experience for me, and I encourage you all to come and see it for yourselves.