Life Outside the Law

By Michael Scruggs


I have been practicing law for over 13 years, and I truly enjoy it (well, most of the time). It has given me the opportunity to do well and try to do some good at the same time. While I am committed to various pro bono efforts, I found a particularly enriching and enjoyable way to help others outside of the practice of law—building houses in Mexico every year with high school students.

I would like to say that I sought out my adventure south of the border, but the opportunity found me. A good attorney friend of mine who attends the same church that I do called me out of the blue. To be honest, he wasn’t that close a friend when he first called me back in 1996, but he is now. He explained that he was traveling with a group from church down to Mexico to work on an orphanage, and he thought that I would really enjoy it.

I explained that I was preparing for trial on a rather complex case, and therefore I simply couldn’t entertain the idea of going. My friend was fairly persistent. He finally persuaded me to agree that I would join him if the case settled. You guessed it: the case settled two days before the trip to Mexico. Before I knew it I was on my way to a place in Mexico just outside of Tijuana that would make any poor neighborhood that I had ever experienced look like Malibu. No plumbing, no showers, no paved roads, and no beds.

That week was brutal. It was summer, and we were working on repairs to the orphanage that I would end up calling home for one week out of every year. It is the home base for the house-building pilgrimages that I have been embarking upon with about 100 of the local high school students every year since.

We spend our spring break laboring in the sun, building 12-by-24 foot secure, dry homes for families that often times are literally living in huts formed out of old pallet boards and cardboard. We have no power tools, yet in about five days each group consisting of 10 kids and two adults successfully completes the project and turns over the keys to the eager family.

On day one we level the earth that will be the footprint for the house. We do it with shovels, picks, and a lot of sweat. Because one of the most common building sites that our families are able to secure is in an area used as a dump, working in the dirt can be a very daunting and hazardous task.

Day two is what I used to call “cement day” until a few years ago, when I learned from a high school student that it was more appropriately called “concrete day.” Concrete day is spent hand-mixing cement, sand, and water from a 50-gallon drum. Oftentimes the water is a significant distance from the mixing site, and carrying in the 50-pound bags of cement is taxing. Concrete day often pushes 12 hours. By the time we are finished, kids and adults alike have a combination of fine cement dust, dirt, and sweat clinging to every inch of our bodies. It’s not a pretty sight. The real treat is the evening bath: each person is allotted one or two buckets of cold water. Those who know me know that I’m a two-bucket guy.

Day two is spent framing. We have created a plan that calls for standardized lengths of wood. This is great—if you can correctly follow the plan. The real hazard is being in the midst of 10 or more high school students swinging hammers and wielding handsaws. The skeleton of the house goes up nonetheless.

Day three we put up siding. We used to use a product known as T-1-11. One high school student could not understand why everyone was saying "Tijuana Lovin'"—needless to say, the siding had a new nickname. By the end of day three the structure is starting to take shape.

On day four the back starts to feel the results of the manual labor combined with sleeping on a concrete floor in a sleeping bag. The roof also starts to go up on this house that is now mostly framed, sided, and reasonably square. The high school students seem to take great pleasure in scaring the %@!& out of me by balancing on the center beam and the trusses of the incomplete, slightly pitched roof while hanging in precarious positions hammering away at each other and the soon-to-be weather-tight structure.

Day five brings paint, lots of paint. Paint and high school students are an interesting mix. When you throw in the tar used to seal the roofing material it's even more fun. This night I try to smuggle an extra bucket for my nightly bath.

On the sixth day we rest . . . sort of. Some of us are still trying to get the wiring completed and the door to stay shut. We are exhausted, but somehow, when we hand over the keys to this mansion to the family that will call it home, we remember why we came. It is one of the greatest joys I have experienced.

Every year our church group is responsible for building 10 to 12 houses in Mexico. These houses that are now homes for families of as many as six or seven people are only the corporal product of the week’s toil. The kids go through a transformation—one that renews your faith in the next generation. These are good kids that work hard and selflessly for people that they do not know from a culture that they do not understand. They are moved by the reality of the poverty and conditions that we experience. They learn so much.

And so do I—every year.

Michael Scruggs practices at the Scruggs Law Firm in Mercer Island, Washington.
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