FAIRMONT - Mark Schultz dodged federales and a drug cartel to visit a group of people in Mexico he has come to think of as friends.
Schultz, of Fairmont, visited the Tarahumara Indians in the Sierra Madre mountains for the first time in 2000. He took his sixth trip July 12-25.
Before he left, he asked for donations so he could help the Tarahumara buy items to help see them through a three-year drought. He was hoping for $1,500. He got $3,500.
"I couldn't believe it," he said.
"Thank you to everyone for all their support in any which way: words of encouragement, money, books," he said.
One of the reasons Schultz wanted to go back was because he heard 60 people in the village had died of starvation.
"[There were] very few old people," he said. "Most of the older people had died."
Life expectancy is 40 to 50 for the women, Schultz noted.
"Men survive longer. They get to be 60-70s," he said.
Ironically, three of the days Schultz was at the village, it rained.
"Not showers of rain, but it was rain," he said. "[They are] still in a drought."
One bright spot:?Money goes much further there.
"I figure we bought enough food for them for a good two months: flour, cornmeal, beans, rice, sardines, saltine crackers, lard, canned chicken," Schultz said.
The money also put a new roof on the schoolteacher's house and Schultz was able to take her on a shopping spree.
"I don't know how many stores, but we bought every crayon, pencil and pen they had," he said with a chuckle.
"Last school year, they had 83 children in school, which goes up to sixth grade," Schultz said.
They hope the numbers will be similar this year.
Schultz and the schoolteacher had company on their excursion.
"We took a very, very poor lady who's never been anywhere in her life," he said. "We went to a cafe and she'd never been to something like that.
"After the cafe, there was a guy selling ice cream on the corner," he said. "She'd never had ice cream in her life. That was cool to see her eat that.
"We took her to a grocery store and told her to get things we didn't already get her. First thing she went to get was a loaf of bread and she held it like she was holding a brand-new little baby."
The donations also bought water tanks and hoses to bring water from a mountain spring to the village.
The Indians had Schultz talk to a man in town about putting in a water pump run by solar power.
"They called him the mayor of the city," Schultz said.
So he went down to the town, a trip that took four hours to go 58 miles. Schultz impressed "the mayor" in a unique way.
"He said 'I'd never seen an American in my office, let alone in this town,'" Schultz said.
"The next morning he sent out his guy that does the water work," he said. "He assured me there would be a pump and solar panel to run it in the near future."
The mayor's claim of not seeing another American didn't shock Schultz.
"When I left El Paso to when I got back, I never saw another American," said Schultz, who borrowed a truck from a pastor he knew in the U.S. bordertown. "I drove 13,000 miles in Mexico. I got forced off the road by the federales who questioned what a pickup from Texas was doing way down there.
"I ran into the drug cartel twice, but they left me alone," said Schultz, figuring it was because he was by himself, instead of in a group. "The Indians wouldn't even believe it."
Although Schultz says the drug cartel operates in the same area as the Indians, "they leave the Indians alone because there would be no advantage to hurt them in any way," he said.
He is happy with how much the village was able to do with the money.
"It was a good trip. Really good," he said. "Glad to be home."