Dealing with tragedy and change: the story of Ivanís House

by Calvin Sun

 ďThe only thing constant,Ē goes the saying, ďis change.Ē

 If you stop and examine your life, family and career, you probably would agree with this statement.  Think about it:

                    Our children grow up, get married and have children (we hope in that order)

                    New technologies and new products appear daily

                    Our departments reorganize and we get new responsibilities

Change can frighten people.  At the same time, though, change can provide challenge and opportunity.  For these reasons, knowing how to cope with change is an important skill.  I discuss this topic in an article at the CNET web site Tech Republic.  In that article, I commented on how the tragic experiences of a south Texas family, and their handling of the matter, mirror the ways we can and should deal with change.  I also offer 10 practical tips in that regard.  Here, I share details about that family, their tragedy, and my ties to the family.

Hidalgo County lies almost as far south in Texas as one can go.  That county, and the neighboring ones of Starr, Willacy and Cameron, make up the Rio Grande Valley area of the state.  Located 240 miles south of San Antonio, it has experienced rapid growth over the past few years, particularly in the cities of McAllen and Edinburg.  Another town in the ďValley,Ē Weslaco , holds the distinction of being the hometown of Marine infantryman Harlon Block.  He, along with five other servicemen, raised the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, an act immortalized in the famous Joel Rosenthal photograph.  A person driving from Weslaco west to McAllen, on Expressway 83, would pass through the town of Pharr.  From the expressway, that person would see a Home Depot there, on the right side, just before the exit for McAllen-Miller International Airport.

On May 2, 2003, five year old Ivan San Miguel died at that Home Depot during a family visit.  A patio door, left unsecured by an employee, fell on and crushed Ivan as he walked by.  Though a police investigation found no criminal responsibility for the incident, other legal issues nevertheless arose.   

How does a person deal with the death of a child?  Ivanís parents, Rosendo and Belen, no doubt experienced guilt, anger, bitterness and sadness.  In fact, when testifying in court, Belen wept when she had to mention Ivanís name during questioning.  Even four years later, Rosendo would get into his pickup truck, drive to no particular place, stop the truck and cry.

However, Rosendo and Belen did more.  Following Ivanís death, they decided to construct a dwelling on their property as a memorial to him.  Naming it ďIvanís House,Ē Rosendo (nicknamed Chendy) and Belen intended that it be used for housing by out-of-town church groups who were doing work in the Valley.  Chendy and Belen worked on Ivanís House themselves, receiving significant help from Belenís brother Simon.  In the spring of 2004, they completed that work. 

If you were to visit Ivanís House, you first things you would notice are the blue skies, bright sun and wide open spaces of the Valley.  Youíre in Texas, and if you close your eyes, you could almost imagine the cowboys from ages past, living lives immortalized in the songs of George Jones, Marty Robbins and George Strait.

As you approach the main road towards the San Miguel property, you see, just before their driveway and home, a dirt road.  A small green street sign, placed there by the San Miguels, marks that road poignantly as Ivan Drive .  You turn left onto this dirt road, driving by the San Miguel residence on your right, toward the rear of their propertyóslowly, because of the bumps in the road.  At the end of this road sits Ivanís House.

On the left of the front concrete patio, and along the left side of the concrete pad, family members wrote their names in the concrete.  As you enter the house, you notice first the long center hall, with rooms on either side, reminiscent of the von Trapp house, from ďThe Sound of Music.Ē  As you look up, you see on the wall in front of and above you a large photograph of a barefoot Ivan, holding the toy banjo he loved to play.photo_of_ivan.jpg (409020 bytes)  On the opposite wall, directly above the front door, are the words ďIvanís House for Godís People.Ē 

The rooms on the left each have a double bed and dresser, while the ones on the right each contain between three to four bunk beds.  Stairs at the back of the house lead to a second level, where  a kitchen and small eating and meeting area are located. 

In the summer of 2004, I was part of the first group to stay at Ivanís House. My church, in Philadelphia, had sent a youth missions group to the Valley that year.  To the chagrin of my older daughter, but to the delight of her peers (I think), I served as an adult leader of the group.  That year was our second in the Valley, having stayed in 2003 at a different place. In early 2004, our overall group leader, Helen, learned about Ivanís House, and made the wise decision to stay there.

We had come to run a vacation bible school at a church in Weslaco , but ended up ministering to the San Miguels as well.  Early that week, after making several discreet inquiries, I learned where Ivan was buried.  Traveling there later that week with several other leaders, we left flowers and said a few words by Ivanís grave. 

We returned as a group to Ivanís House in the summer of 2005 and again in the summer of 2007.  Each of those stays coincided with Ivanís birthday, and in 2007, Ivan would have been 10.  During the early part of our stay in 2007, Helen and I were talking with the San Miguels. We learned from them that people seemed reluctant to talk with them about their loss, and as a result they (the parents) felt isolated from others, even those in their church. 

Later, that Saturday morning, the group decided to hold a memorial service at Ivanís grave later that day.  We called the San Miguels, who were in McAllen at the time, and agreed to meet at the cemetery.  We were to call them later, a second time, when we left Ivanís House, giving them time to arrive, and to avoid making them wait for us longer than necessary.

However, when we arrived, we found the San Miguels there already.  The sad look on their faces spoke to their emotions on this day.  After saying hello to them, we gathered by Ivanís grave, and began the short service.  I began by reading a verse from the bible and by saying a few words of remembrance.  Ashley, a girl on the team, laid a bouquet of flowers, then another girl, Claudia (the daughter of a pastor of our church) read a letter she had written.  In the letter, Claudia told the San Miguels all of the things our group had accomplished over the past years in the Valley, things made possible because we could stay at Ivanís House.  No one can understand, she said, why bad things happen.  However, she continued, it was important for the San Miguels to know about all the good that resulted from this tragedy.

After Claudia finished, we sang ďAmazing Grace,Ē and then I asked the San Miguels if they had anything they wanted to share.  Visibly moved, Chendy told us that they didnít know what to think or say, because this was the first time anyone had ever done anything for them in this regard.  We closed the service, said good-bye for the moment, then went our separate ways. 

A few hours later, after our group returned to Ivanís House, Belen called me. After thanking the group for its gesture that afternoon, she asked if she and Chendy could be involved in the second week of our groupís stay.  During that second week, many members of the team, plus new arrivals, would be traveling to and staying in Rio Grande City, 40 miles west of McAllen, while commuting to and working during the day at an orphanage in Camargo, Mexico.

We gratefully accepted their offer of help.  Not only would their language and interpretation services be vital, but so would Chendyís truck and trailer, in moving our things from Ivanís House to the church in Rio Grande City where the team would be staying.  Though I didnít stay for the second week, I heard much about it.  When the stay ended, Chendy and Belen told Helen  that they were committed to returning to the orphanage regularly to continue the work of the group.

The San Miguels always will have Ivan in their hearts and thoughts.  No one can change the events of May 2, 2003 .  We certainly donít give thanks because of those events.  However, we can give thanks because of things that have happened as a result.  The San Miguels accepted what happened, taking positive action in and showing flexibility by constructing Ivanís House.  They communicated with us their emotions, and we shared with them the results of our work and our gratitude for Ivanís House.  That communications, in turn, led them to even greater involvement.

I hope no one who reads this article ever experiences what the San Miguels did.  Nonetheless, their reaction to change and tragedy has important lessons for us all.


Copyright © 2009 by Calvin Sun.  All rights reserved.

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