When Elizabeth Davis of Weslaco, Texas turned 102 on Sept. 19, she celebrated her birthday the same way she lives-without fanfare. "Judy German, our neighbor down the road, brought over a nice meal for me and Mabel and we had a wonderful evening visiting," Elizabeth reports.
The Mabel she referred to is her sister-Mabel Clare. How old is Mabel? When I asked her recently, she winked and whispered, "Thirty-nine and holding."
Neither Mabel nor Elizabeth is five feet tall and neither weighs 100 pounds, but these two women stand tall and carry enormous weight along the border. Together they operate the Mexican Children's Relief, an agency in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas that works mostly on the Mexican side of the border, around Neuvo Progreso, one of the poorest regions in North America. They build houses for the homeless and schools for communities that desperately need them. They provide food for kids - some of whom had been eating from restaurant dumpsters. Last year, they gave scholarships to 350 youth to help them attend secondary schools and colleges.
Some humanitarian agencies spend 75 cents out of every dollar they receive for infomericals and other forms of promotion. Mabel and Elizabeth don't. In fact, these two women never spend a penny for advertising and never ask anyone for money. Where do they get money for scholarships and relief work? Most of their funds come from residents of the area and from Winter Texans who come to the Rio Grande Valley every winter to escape cold weather back home. These supporters have seen the plight of Mexican families and have also seen how effectively and efficiently Mabel and Elizabeth help them help themselves. So they give generously of their time, their talents, and their money. And they tell others. Word gets around, support comes, and work gets done.
Assistance also comes from religious and other humanitarian groups, including Oklahoma Conference Volunteers In Mission (VIM). Even though Elizabeth prefers to avoid fanfare, she did permit Larry Acton, director of Oklahoma Conference VIM, to organize a birthday party for her in 1998, when she reached 100. "Elizabeth agreed to let us give her a party providing there would be no gifts for her," recalls Acton. "She wanted us to encourage everyone to bring rice or beans to give to the poor, or to bring cash to help buy a bus to take Mexican children to and from school so they wouldn't have to walk."
Acton says the party, held at a United Methodist church in Mercedes, Texas, not far from Elizabeth's home, was attended by more than 200 people - including 47 from the Oklahoma VIM team, several community leaders and public officials, and scores of children. "The guests contributed half a ton of beans and rice and about $2000 toward the purchase of the bus," says Acton. "Elizabeth was elated. We couldn't have given her any gift that would have thrilled her more."
When Acton asked Elizabeth recently what her secret is for living a long and full life, she chuckled and said, "I don't have any secret. In fact, I seldom think about my age. I do think a lot about all the wonderful people I've known. The only suggestion I have is find something to do that you enjoy doing and do it."
Elizabeth has been working with Mabel since 1980, when she retired after nearly 30 years as a night officer for the Hopkins Airport Hotel in Cleveland and moved to south Texas. "It's Mabel's work," Elizabeth says. "All I do is keep the books. Mabel is the one who started this and keeps the work going."
Mabel says when she was growing up in Ohio, she never expected to live in south Texas or to be in humanitarian work. In her youth, she dreamed of being a professional musician. And her dream was coming true. By the time she was 20, she was violinist in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, and by time she was 25, she was in Italy, playing in the famed Rome Symphony Orchestra.
Her career was soaring until she was in a helicopter crash that injured her left arm and hand so severely she could never again play the violin. After the accident, Mabel lived a few years in Cleveland, then moved to south Texas to teach. She soon became deeply concerned about Mexicans who were trapped by poverty and injustice, and began providing social services to a dozen or so families.
In September 1967, Hurricane Beulah slashed through the Rio Grande Valley, dumping 30 inches of rain, spawning a hundred tornadoes, killing 13 people, injuring hundreds, and causing more than $100 million in property damage. "Hurricane victims on the Mexico side of the border were not being cared for adequately, and Mabel decided to do something about it," says Elizabeth. "That's when she started this work."
Mabel says before her accident she was a different person. "I never even thought about doing anything like this. I never cared anything about anybody except music, I was leading a very selfish life. But then the hurricane came, and the need was so great."
When I visited Mabel and Elizabeth last February, they were concerned about victims of another natural disaster that had struck Mexico. Three months earlier, floods had washed out bridges and roads in southeast Mexico, isolating hundreds of communities, and causing mud slides that buried everything and everybody in their paths. At least 350 people - possibly as many as 600 - were killed. More than 270,000 fled, leaving behind their possessions, and, in some cases loved ones, buried under mounds of mud. Some refugees gathered near Neuvo Progreso.
Mabel told me about the camp. "Everybody should see it," she said. "Everybody on this side of the border with so much of everything, and with such enormous waste of everything should see that camp. I'll bet there are 100 families out there. I look at all of the little kids. I keep thinking what future these kids have. Their only possible chance to live a better life is through education. But there's no school. Well, there's only one thing to do and that's to build a primary school!"
Mabel did more than talk about the problem. She struck a deal with the Mexican government: If the government would donate the land and hire the teachers, she would build the building. The government agreed to her terms. Within less than six months, Mabel and her network built the building. And now the kids in the refugee camp have a school. One school that Mabel built in 1999 is appropriately named by the students "The House of Hope."
"Hope is what Mabel gives," says Elizabeth. "Her message is always the same: 'We can do it. We can change. There doesn't have to be so much poverty and injustice in Mexico.'"
Mabel has no illusion that charity will save the Mexican people. "I don't believe in charity," she told me sternly. "I never give anybody anything without expecting something in return. I don't expect anything personally or for our ministry. But I do expect people to use what they receive to make their lives better and to help other people make their lives better. And people who receive help from me don't think of it as charity either. That's why we are such good friends."
It's easy to see why many Mexicans call Mabel and Elizabeth angels.