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Just got back from another glorious week in Tijuana (how often does that word combo come up?) and getting lots of questions about it. This is a repeat-of-a-repeat, but every year there’s a new crop of parents sending their kids on Piedmont’s greatest junket so I thought I’d throw it out there again. Thanks as always to Scott Kail, Julie Hofer, and the dozens of other folks who make this miraculous endeavor possible. My blingy-gold trucker’s hat is permanently tipped to you guys. 

I’m not going to lie. The first time I heard about the PCC Mexico Spring Break trip, I rolled my eyes and quickly labeled it a “rich kid trip.” Growing up middle class (as in flyover zone five-figure, not Piedmont middle class) and attending college with the mainly affluent, I developed a cynicism (jealousy?) towards semesters in Nicaragua or winter breaks teaching paraplegics to ski.

Why couldn’t Piedmont kids focus on desperately poor families in Oakland or Richmond? Wouldn’t it be far more efficient for PHS to raise a chunk of money to send a skilled crew with a cement truck to build twice as many houses in Mexico?

What I’ve learned through a half dozen immensely satisfying yet hygiene-challenged weeks is that the Mexico Trip = Jenga. Each element is vital to the perilous, miraculous structure; you cannot achieve the whole without assembling all the pieces.

The most fundamental Jenga block? Teenagers. A PCC’er told me they’ve tried to replicate the trip with teams of adults and it doesn’t work. Accompanying those teenagers must be adult “leaders” with limited construction skills, driving rudimentary rental vans with single-disc CD players. Naturally, the aforementioned teenagers must devote a great deal of time and energy to producing CD’s that shock and/or repulse the adults.

The entire group must be bused from Piedmont to San Diego and back, and a minimum of one student per bus must vomit. Tijuana ‘accommodations’ must be spartan, with no electricity, running water, wifi or cell service. Families served must speak no English, and there cannot be an outside interpreter to smooth over the inevitable misunderstandings. There needs to be a lot of candy. Each night around a campfire, the lightly-showered girls need to groom one another like monkeys, comparing sunburns and braiding each others’ hair into ever more complicated designs. Around the same fire, a gifted spiritual leader named Scott Kail must skillfully nudge each participant to ponder the connection between the unadulterated joy flowing throughout the week and their own personal relationship with God.

Believe me, there are a couple of Jenga blocks I’d be happy to toss. But I believe in the whole enough to endure the parts that aren’t my favorite. And I see the logic of it all. If we built houses in West Oakland, building codes and union rules and a thousand other hurdles would ensure the PHS students did little more than paint a wall or two. If there were power tools and a cement mixer, there’d also be access to flat irons and Snapchat, and we all know where that would end up.

The last night of the Jenga tournament is the emotional payoff of the trip. That’s when what appear to be entitled, overconfident teens triumph – and often cry — over the elemental satisfaction of building someone a home. They also share their struggles with Big Stuff like substance abuse, losing a parent, terrifying suicidal thoughts. Then their Jenga teammates, who also appear to be entitled, overconfident teens, step forward and surround them with strength, acceptance and love.

On my first trip, I turned my phone on just over the border to learn that Isabel captured a local teen stealing aluminum foil on camera, and did I want to come in tonight or tomorrow morning to look at it? (BTW – who steals aluminum foil?) Another year, I came home to find the staff wrestling with students from PMS and Millennium who are stealing beer. Raising moral, compassionate, self-reliant children has always been a Herculean task, never more so than in this age of the Kardashians and Ask.fm. Lucky for the parents of the 250+ teenagers on PCC’s Jenga trip, we’re getting some serious help along the way. Which is nothing to roll your eyes at.