Even though the pandemic prevented two local teens from going to Tijuana to build homes for families in need, they did not take a vacation from their long-standing philanthropy.
San Diego siblings Daniella and Gabriel Benitez, aged 17 and 15, continued to raise money for the construction of simple homes, each costing $ 16,000, along with furniture.
They also stayed in remote contact with the intended recipients of the homes via FaceTime. Families on standby are often homeless or crammed into makeshift shacks with dirt floors that lack electricity, running water, plumbing, kitchens, bathrooms, or other home amenities.
Now, thanks to their involvement in the local nonprofit Build A Miracle (BAM) which selects families who meet their qualifications and oversees construction, the Benitez siblings are making up for lost construction time.
On September 18, Daniella and Gabriel joined BAM in Tijuana to pour a concrete slab for a $ 16,000 project made possible through Gabriel’s fundraising efforts. On October 9, they will come back to do the same for a house that Daniella is sponsoring. And on October 23, the siblings hope to begin construction on their third house in 2021.
Since Daniella volunteered for her first BAM project at the age of 12, she and her brother, together, have raised over $ 230,000 in donations and have completed 11 homes with three more under construction. and others pending.
Even the White House took note.
Both recently received the President’s Volunteer Service Award at the Gold Level, the top level, and a congratulatory letter signed by President Joe Biden recognizing their “commitment to strengthening our nation and our communities through volunteer service.” The program is run by AmeriCorps and the teens have been nominated by BAM.
“The recognition of our president is an honor, and I am very grateful for the award,” said Daniella. Gabriel called the award “cool”.
Daniella was bitten by the home virus when her old school, Notre Dame Academy, sponsored the construction of a house in Mexico in 2016. Upon returning from that trip, she decided to commit to fundraising to build a house per year. She did – and more.
She developed a formula to secure annual pledges of $ 1,000 each from herself and 15 people – relatives, friends, classmates, neighbors.
An acquaintance who admired his entrepreneurial spirit, went out with an offer to match his $ 16,000 to pay for another house and made that match three times.
As a freshman at Cathedral Catholic High School, Daniella assembled a team of supporters and founded a Build A Miracle club to keep the momentum going.
Chris North, co-founder of BAM with his wife, Julianne, initially had no idea that Daniella was only 12 years old. He was shocked when he met her at Starbucks and she handed over a bag of checks and cash totaling thousands of dollars.
Daniella’s brother was inspired to embark on his own fundraising campaigns. Gabriel is now the secretary of the school club and hopes to take over when Daniella graduates next spring. Their mother, GG Benitez, is never far from the action, offering help and support.
“I am so proud to report that the efforts of these children did not slow down during COVID,” she said.
North says they’re not the only students to sponsor BAM houses. Two students from Bishop’s School, Evan and Claire Coats, built a few and attended a BAM club there. Ashton Zakar, a student at Saint Augustine High, also built houses. Usually, however, service clubs, schools, churches, and community and business groups are the funders. The Padres front desk workers completed a house in August.
But the Benitez siblings paid for the most houses. “They went above and beyond,” says North.
Although they did not cross the border during the pandemic, they have joined the family move-in celebrations online.
Last February, “Marvel’s Hero Project” aired on Disney +, shared Daniella’s story in “Dynamic Daniella,” one of 20 segments about the projects and passions of 20 young people. A limited edition Marvel comic was also produced featuring the character of Daniella. This recognition led to the donation of 12e house, the Marvel house, built during the pandemic.
Daniella has also appeared in People magazine, on “Good Morning America” and, along with her brother, on the “Today” show, after which a roofing company sponsored a home on their behalf, North says.
Daniella plans to continue building a philanthropic house even after entering college.
Much of the credit, however, goes to BAM and Chris and Julianne North. After graduating in various years from Loyola Marymount University, they helped modernize an orphanage in Tecate.
They discovered that many of the children who lived there were not orphans but had been abandoned by parents who were homeless or unable to care for them.
So the couple decided to focus on keeping families together. Over the past 22 years, the Norths and their paid staff and volunteers have built 430 small three- and two-bedroom homes in Tijuana. They also built additions to existing homes and established community service centers, education and tutoring programs, computer labs, counseling, and job training. They demand that recipients give back by helping to build new homes.
“The pandemic has slowed down the number of volunteers who can attend, but we still built 28 houses,” North said. Currently, they are also working on a 24-unit multi-family project.
Aside from the President’s Award, Gabriel says, “For me the best part is the look on the faces of the families we build for when they come into homes.