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Couple's mission in Mexico combines faith and service

In 1979, the Bennings began working at a Mexican orphanage built by friends. Thirty-four years later, they're still going back.

November 27, 2013|Steve Lopez

Tito reaches out to the poorest families, who come in on scholarship, their training funded in part by donations and by the fees middle-class families are able to pay. The academy members are like a very large family, says Tito, who believes that in his troubled country, music can be a healing force, and a way to build pride and develop a greater sense of community.

"The idea is something like El Sistema," Tito said of the Venezuelan music program that L.A. Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel helped cultivate.

The day we arrived in Mexico, the Benning Academia orchestra performed at an orphanage on the famed Ruta de Vino northeast of Ensenada. The orphanage director, Jonathan Lopez, told me the children there have lost their parents to accidents and violence. Some were given up by families overwhelmed by their children's physical or mental disabilities.

"It's a little bit of everything," he said.

Nancy Benning tuned violins for children in the orphanage's music education program. With nervous fingers but big smiles, the youngsters opened the outdoor concert with a short piece that drew hearty applause. They then joined the audience to watch the Academia orchestra — which included young children as well as some of Baja's finest adult mariachi players — in a rousing celebration of ranchera romantica and other local music.

We traveled early the next morning to Charla's orphanage, the Foundation for His Ministry. Along the way, Nancy and Tito pointed out the site of a horrific car accident 10 years ago that orphaned seven children. One of those seven, Marlen, is among the several kids Hans and Nancy have sponsored over the years — there's also Jose, Gabby and Oscar, among others. Marlen, now an adult, helps Tito manage the music academy.

"This is our home away from home," Nancy said as we drove up to the little brick bungalow that she and Hans live in while working at the mission. An alcove off the living room serves as the music studio where Nancy taught Tito and dozens of others over the years.

Charla, who like the Bennings, shows no sign of slowing down, gave us a tour of the grounds, including the school attended by the 90 orphans.  The operation has its own fire department, which also serves the greater community, and a medical center run by a doctor who came through on a tour from Shanghai and decided to stay.

The auditorium, recently rebuilt by Hans and the men from the rancho, is the town social hall. The cribs in the nursery, and other furniture throughout the facility, were built by Hans. The auto shop is run by a man who is a graduate of the rehab program. The cafeteria serves families who work in low-paying jobs in the fields. The bike shop builds custom wheelchairs and other devices for disabled orphans and the chief mechanic is an adult who came to the orphanage as a child after losing both legs in an accident.

Volunteers come from around the world to help out. Some stay a week; some never leave. And there's a macadamia grove and processing plant, with sales helping to finance the entire operation, which has grown to include ministries in Sinaloa, Michoacan and Oaxaca.

Several miles to the north, on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the sea, Hans has spent nine years building a residential recovery center for men with alcohol or drug addiction.

"They walk in here on their own, or the police bring them, and they have to commit to one year," Hans told me. "Nothing is written down, per se, but they're up at 4 a.m., there's one hour of meditation, there's Bible study, everybody works, everybody handles their load. There's no leaving and no outside visits. They come from such troubled lives, they really need structure. I give them three chances. If they mess up, they're out."

He also teaches them electrical work and carpentry (they're now making wooden Christmas toys for the orphans). The men are also helping Hans build an auto repair shop at the rancho.

"I want them to have a skill, so they have something to help them survive when they leave here," said Hans, who leaves the operation in the hands of one of his most senior students when he's gone.

"He's like a father to me," said Rafa, 20, whose mother called while I was speaking to him. She wanted to know if Rafa could come home for Christmas.

Hans spoke to the mother, telling her Rafa had earned his trust, but he wasn't done with the program.

"You can go," Hans told Rafa, "but I'm going to want to see you back here."

Javier, 45, also referred to Hans as a father figure.

"I don't know how he does all this," said Javier. "The time, the money, the heart he gives. This has been a struggle for me, being here. I'm trying to give back by sticking with it."

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