President Joe Biden recognized the teens for their work on behalf of low-income Mexican families.
Although the pandemic prevented two teenagers from the city from going to Tijuana to build houses for needy families, they did not put aside their usual philanthropy.
Siblings from San Diego, Daniella and Gabriel Benítez, ages 17 and 15, continued to raise money to build the simple houses, each costing $ 16,000, with furniture.
They also kept in contact with the recipients of the houses remotely via FaceTime. Waiting families are often homeless or crammed into makeshift shacks with dirt floors that lack electricity, running water, plumbing, kitchen, bathroom, or other of the comforts of home.
Now, through their involvement with the local nonprofit Build A Miracle (BAM), which selects families who meet their requirements and oversees construction, the Benítez brothers are making up for lost construction time.
On September 18, Daniella and Gabriel teamed up with BAM in Tijuana to pour a concrete slab for a $ 16,000 project made possible by Gabriel’s fundraising efforts.
On October 9, they will do the same again for a house that Daniella is sponsoring. And on October 23, the brothers hope to begin construction on their third home in 2021.
Since Daniella volunteered for her first BAM project at age 12, she and her brother have between the two of them raised more than $ 230,000 in donations and completed 11 houses, with three more in process and others pending.
Even the White House knows it.
Both recently received from the President the Volunteer Service Award at the highest level of gold, and a letter of recognition signed by President Joe Biden in which their “commitment to strengthening our nation and our communities through of voluntary service ”. The program is run by AmeriCorps, and the teens were nominated by BAM.
“The recognition of our president is an honor, and I am very grateful for the award,” says Daniella. Gabriel called the award “great.”
Daniella got the idea to build houses when her previous school, Notre Dame Academy, sponsored the construction of a house in Mexico in 2016. After returning from that trip, she decided to commit to raising funds to build one house a year. And it has accomplished that, and more.
She developed a formula for getting annual pledges of $ 1,000 each from herself and 15 people: family, friends, classmates, and neighbors.
An acquaintance, who admired his entrepreneurial spirit, offered to match his $ 16,000 to pay for another house and has done so three times.
In her freshman year at Cathedral Catholic High School, Daniella assembled a team of supporters and founded the Build A Miracle Club to keep the momentum going.
Chris North, the co-founder of BAM with his wife, Julianne, had no idea that Daniella was only 12 years old. He was impressed when he met her at Starbucks and she handed him a bag of checks and cash for thousands of dollars.
Daniella’s brother was encouraged to start his fundraising campaigns. Gabriel is now secretary of the school club and hopes to take over when Daniella graduates next spring. His mother, GG Benítez, is never far from the action, offering help and support.
“I am very proud to announce that these guys’ efforts have not diminished during COVID,” she said.
North says they are not the only students who have sponsored BAM houses. Two Bishop’s School students, Evan and Claire Coats have built some and participated in a BAM club there. Ashton Zakar, a student at Saint Augustine High, has also built houses. However, service clubs, schools, churches, and community and business groups are typically the sponsors. Parents’ office workers completed home in August.
But the Benítez brothers are the ones who have financed the most houses. “They have gone further,” says North.
Although they did not cross the border during the pandemic, the celebration of the family’s move continued online.
Last February, the “Marvel’s Hero Project” that airs on Disney +, shared Daniella’s story on “Dynamic Daniella”, one of 20 segments about the projects and passions of 20 young people. A limited-edition Marvel comic featuring the character Daniella was also produced. That recognition led to the donation of a twelfth house, the Marvel House, built during the pandemic.
Daniella also appeared in People magazine, on the “Good Morning America” show and, with her brother, on the “Today” show, after which a roofing company-sponsored home in her name, North said.
Daniella plans to continue philanthropically building houses even after entering college.
However, much of the credit goes to BAM and Chris, and Julianne North. After graduating different years from Loyola Marymount University, they helped improve an orphanage in Tecate.
They found that many of the children living there were not orphans, but had been delivered by parents who were homeless or unable to care for them.
So the couple decided to focus on keeping families together. In the past 22 years, the Norths and their paid staff and volunteers have built 430 small three- or two-bedroom houses in Tijuana.
They have also built extensions to existing homes and create community service centers, education, and mentoring programs, computer labs, counseling, and job training. They ask the beneficiaries of the houses to repay the aid given for the construction of new houses.
“The pandemic slowed down the number of volunteers who were able to attend, but we still built 28 houses,” says North. Currently, they are also working on a 24-unit multifamily project.
Leaving aside the president’s award, Gabriel says: “For me, the best thing is the look of the families we build for when they enter the houses.”
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