“The Highway to Mexico program, which involves a 5,500-km, week-long trip, was born,” says Seiler. “It morphed into an annual delivery of emergency vehicles, school buses and other equipment.”
Children around the Mexican city of Culiacan were dying from injuries and disease two years ago because there was no way of getting them to a hospital.
“Parents couldn’t afford cars to get their youngsters to the respected Culiacan Children’s Hospital in this northwestern city,” says Allan Kuechle, a Grande Prairie Swan City Rotary Club member.
“But our Rotarian Convoy to Mexico presented the hospital with an ambulance and today it is helping save many lives.”
The 18th convoy leaves Grande Prairie next Friday to present the Mazatlan Fire Department with 10 vehicles, including the 100th emergency vehicle.
“We estimate northern Alberta Rotary Clubs and their supporters have donated some $2 million worth of vehicles and equipment since our convoys began,” says Felix Seiler, a hotelier and Rotarian who organizes the convoys with fellow Grande Prairie Rotarians Kuechle and Rick Conrad.
Started in 2002
The convoys began after Grande Prairie holidaying Rotarian Lou Albanetti asked locals in Mazatlan in 2002 what they needed most.
Wheelchairs, he was told. At a later brain-storming meeting in Grande Prairie, it was decided the easiest way to get the wheelchairs down was in a school bus they would also donate.
“The Highway to Mexico program, which involves a 5,500-km, week-long trip, was born,” said Seiler. “It morphed into an annual delivery of emergency vehicles, school buses and other equipment.”
More than 100 vehicles will have now gone or are going this year to municipalities in Mazatlan and surrounding destinations in the state of Sinaloa, Mexico.
This year’s convoy consists of an aerial ladder fire truck; a fire rescue truck; a fire department support van, three school buses and four ambulances.
“We will also take 80 wheelchairs; assorted fire protective clothing and fire fighting gear; more than 250 soccer uniforms and cleated shoes and numerous other gear that was donated from municipalities, associations and private donors,” said Conrad.
Many communities would be without any emergency service if it weren’t for the donated vehicles.
The convoys are a joint project of the Swan City Rotary Club; the Grande Prairie Rotary Club; Grande Prairie After Five Rotary Club; Grande Prairie Sunrise Rotary Club; Edson Rotary Club; Fairview Rotary Club; Peace River Rotary Club and the Rotary Club of Edmonton Riverview.
The project is financed through the clubs and in-kind donations of many municipalities and organizations across Alberta.
‘One of the best experiences’
Seiler recalls being on the first convoy journey and driving a 68-seat school bus to the small community of La Zabila in the mountains outside Mazatlan.
“We drove up a rugged dirt road, arrived three hours late and were surprised to find waiting for us were children in their best school uniforms, accompanied by their teachers and parents,” he said.
He was more surprised when told the students walked a return distance of more than 14 kilometres each day to their school in the nearby town of El Quelite.
“The children asked to see the bus and I thought they must have been filing out the back door,” says Seiler.
“But after I had driven them around the town square, 105 got off. Seeing them all singing and smiling was one of the best experiences I have ever had.”
Rotarians say the state of Sinaloa a few months later graded the road to make it an easier drive and the town was given a second bus.
Murray Heinrich, former Edson fire chief and Edson Rotary Club member, is a major contact for fire trucks.
“I get calls from stations all over the province wanting to know if we want to acquire a truck that is being retired,” he says. “Other fire trucks are sometimes found at auctions.
“We make sure they are in tip-top shape. But the people who take over the trucks in Mexico are gifted mechanics who can make anything work.”
Heinrich says 170 Rotarians and spouses have joined a convoy to Mexico, but he and his wife will fly down this year for the 100th fire truck handover celebrations.
“Two Edson Rotarians, Danielle Nadeau and Shari McDowell, have volunteered to take over driving duties,” he says.
The important thing on the drive is to buy groceries the day before the border crossing and to take a good water supply.
“It can take three hours or an overnight stay to go through formalities at Nogales on the Arizona-Mexican border,” he says. “But our Mexican friends come up to meet us and pay any border costs.”
Two Rotary drivers are assigned to every vehicle, but it can be a tiring drive and they sometimes arrive a little grumpy.
“They quickly meet some of the warmest people they will meet in their lives and plan to come again,” says Heinrich.
“There are always warm memories, such as the time we were at a beach barbecue and a gentleman with a rod pulled fish from the sea and threw them onto our charcoal barbecue.”
The Mazatlan Post