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Dawn Haas, a professional chef and owner of the former Dawn's Cafe in Cottage Grove, will help an orphanage in Reynosa, Mexico, set up healthier eating practices. Submitted photo

'Where we are called to be'

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It had always been part of Mark and Dawn Haas' 10-year plan to leave their possessions behind and seek out a richer life immersed in volunteerism.

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Active in the Crossroads Church community and at area soup kitchens, the Cottage Grove couple yearned to do more. After several mission trips to an orphanage in a small town in northern Mexico tugged at their heartstrings, they decided to make their visit permanent and will soon drive 1,500 miles to live in Reynosa, Mexico.

Just across the green waters of the Rio Grande, south of the quiet Texas border town of McAllen, lies the city of Reynosa with upward of 600,000 residents going about their daily lives. Yet, a mere half-hour drive south to the outskirts of town is another city of sorts on the campus of the Pilar de Esperanza orphanage and school, a solace for some 20 children and teenagers who have been abandoned.

"Technically it's more of a children's home," Dawn said. "Some are orphans but some have family members somewhere but their family life is dysfunctional and they can't take care of their kids or the parents are incarcerated."

The Haas' first arrived at Pilar de Esperanza, whose name is Spanish for Pillar of Hope, in November 2008 after completing a four-year, on-and-off mission to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, during which they helped build a traditional Mexican church. The orphanage, Mark described, was a series of white buildings with white walls. Everything was white.

"It looked like a sanitorium," he said. "It looked like a mental facility and these children were living there."

Getting more acquainted with the orphanage, the Haas' were told the facility survives solely off food donations, which are sporadic and often unhealthy.

"They will get day-old produce every Saturday from a company in town but (the children) have to clean the produce area. So it's not given to them for free," Dawn explained. "Then they have to come back and sort it out, most of which will be garbage, and then it's given to the children for the week. They used to get pastries once in awhile but that is now gone.

"Their staple is rice and beans but when we come down there (the kids) eat like kings and queens for the week," she added. "And, it's hard to leave knowing they will go back to Ramen Noodles, rotten produce and macaroni and cheese, which you know isn't made with milk."

Throughout the past several years, the couple made occasional one-week trips back to the orphanage to help paint the drab, white dormitories, build a new food service building and work in the classroom.

Each year it got more difficult for them to leave.

"A small staff of four run the entire orphanage. They are severely understaffed and underfunded," Mark said. "We're so happy to be there helping. How can you leave? We wanted to do so much more."

Giving it all away to give back

It was a decision that didn't shock many, including the Haas' two grown sons. With their boys living lives of their own, Mark and Dawn, who joked about not having grandchildren yet, said now was the perfect time to indulge in their love of serving others.

Dawn has had years of service experience, primarily during the early 2000s when she owned and operated Dawn's Cafe. While the success of the business was short-lived, a customer who attended Crossroads Church introduced her to the ministry, which soon ignited her passion for mission trips.

Mark, who was part of the family's metal fabrication business W.J. Haas, sold his share to his brothers to embark on a new life in Reynosa.

The couple, who leaves in less than a week, is sympathetic to family sad to see them move, but said they are excited to get on the road and start helping at Pilar de Esperanza.

Since starting the orphanage in 1996, director Sara Gutierrez has sheltered, fed, clothed and educated abandoned children in an attempt to give them a chance at a better life rather than the norm, which was work with the regional drug cartel. With the help of three volunteers, two of which grew up in the orphanage, they share responsibilities for the 20, sometimes more, children and teenagers that reside at Pilar de Esperanza.

"We're excited to get down there and be positive role models and be a good influence in these kids' lives," Mark said. "Hopefully we can change their lives so that their futures can be better than what they are without us."

In an effort to bring attention to their mission and the orphanage, the Haas' have started a nonprofit called Serve HIS Kids. The purpose of the nonprofit, Mark said, is to improve nutrition and educational and spiritual resources for the children in Reynosa.

"The reason for our mission is to help set up new menus and help the children get healthy foods consistently," Dawn said. "We also hope to help Sara and the other volunteers in the classroom, hope to build relationships with the kids and help create community outreach. And, just share the love that we have for these children."

"People keep telling us that there are volunteer opportunities here at home and we've been asked a lot why we want to go to Mexico," Mark explained. "It's where we are called to be."

For more information about Serve HIS Kids, to donate and to follow the Haas' journey at Pilar de Esperanza, visit their website at www.servehiskids.org.

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