07/03/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT
Bob Decker has a knack for getting lost, but he never expected a wrong turn to give his life a new direction. One evening in the summer of 2001, Decker had strayed from the route that would take him to a South Texas beach resort and found himself in the Mexican border town of Matamoros. A Houston cop for 25 years, Decker thought he had seen it all—until now. On the side of a dirt road a woman was cooking on a campfire in front of her "house," a shack made out of corrugated cardboard cartons. Over the next hill Decker saw hundreds more, with plastic trash-bag roofs and tattered blankets for doors. Running among the shacks were children; Decker counted 100 of them and stopped, too upset to go on. "It was shocking. This place was not 2 miles from the border," Decker recalls. "That much poverty in a single place—it angered me."
It also spurred him to act. "My whole life was turned upside down," he says. "These people worked harder and more hours than I ever had, and they were living in cardboard and sleeping in the dirt. I had won the birth lottery—that had never occurred to me." Since that visit Decker has given thousands of his own dollars and nearly every free moment he has to providing relief for the families who live in these colonias, or settlements, that have quietly grown along the border for the past four decades. And that is making all the difference for people like Robert Vasquez. On the $45 a week he earns wiring cars at a nearby plant, Vasquez, 35, supports his wife, Ana, 29, and seven children. Decker—who, as one friend puts it, "doesn't have a great command of the Spanish language"—listens through a translator as Vasquez shows him the large hole the wind has torn in the plastic sheeting that serves as the family's roof. "I was frightened the house might blow away," Vasquez tells Decker, pointing to cinder blocks he is slowly collecting to build a permanent home. "We aren't a big organization," Decker responds, "but we can provide building materials." Leaving the family with a bag of groceries he bought that morning at a local market—flour, rice, beans, cooking oil, pasta and oranges—Decker says, "I am going to do everything I can to help."
Decker repeats those words like a mantra in the Ciudad Acuña colonias, which he visits for a few days at least every three weeks—usually with a dozen or more volunteers. Drawn by the prospect of work in factories producing everything from appliances to clothing, men from all over Mexico move their families to these places in the hope that, within a few years, they can buy a small plot and put up a real house. For Decker, who is gruff one minute, teary and tender the next, it's all about helping these families to do just that. Since 2001 his charity Paper Houses has raised some $200,000—virtually every penny of which has gone to help hundreds of Acuña families in the form of food, medicine, building materials or cash, as well as monthly checks to three orphanages, a school and a homeless shelter. Decker expects volunteers to pay their own way: "No one is going to get so much as a 'thank-you' dinner from me." All his spare cash goes to the colonias.
On a May 28 trip, accompanied by Juan Pablo Diego, 18, his translator, and Christine Wiegman, 44, a social worker, Decker checks in on some families he has been helping. Adela Lopez, 71, shares three cardboard shacks with 12 relatives, a handful of chickens and two skinny dogs. She has sad news: Her husband, Jose Guadalupe, 70 and ailing with heart disease, has died. At Decker's request she has estimated the cost of new plastic roofs: $81. "It's too expensive," she says, despairing. "This is very doable," Decker replies. "We are going to do this."
Decker's determination and empathy for those who struggle go back to his years as a rookie cop in Baltimore. Walking the beat alone in one of the city's poorest sections, he recalls, "I met the good, hardworking people of the neighborhood and grew to understand what they worried about and what they wanted." In the early 1980s Decker was recruited by the Houston police department, moving with his second wife and their two daughters (he has another daughter from his first marriage) and eventually working with juvenile victims and offenders. The job was emotionally grueling and took its toll on the marriage. Decker and his wife divorced in 1987; a third, brief marriage ended in 1996. Today the self-described workaholic lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment that also serves as his group's headquarters. With 22 months of unused vacation saved up, Decker went off active duty June 17 to devote himself full-time to Paper Houses. "He doesn't know how to relax," says daughter Marybeth Decker, 24, of Austin, Texas. On the other hand, she adds, "he seems happier than he has in a long time. This work really fuels him."
So does a hug from Josefina Rico. A pretty girl with shiny black hair, Josefina, 8, suffers from mysterious outbreaks of oozing blisters on her face, neck, arms and legs. "She cries because no one will play with her," says her mother, Francisca. Josefina's father, Joseph, 30, earns $30 a week at a construction job; although he has insurance, it doesn't cover Josefina's medicines ($9 for a two-week supply) or taxi fare to the doctor. That's where Decker came in, helping to pay $700 for medicine, food and taxi trips to the doctor's office for over two years. "She's a wonderful, happy kid," he says. "I want her to live without this discomfort." Of Decker, Josefina says, "Bob makes me smile."
Decker's last stop is the home of Oscar Vargas. A 6-year-old with brain cancer, he has had seven surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy. His father, Oscar Sr., 30, who has four other children with wife Araseli, 35, lost his construction job after missing work to take Oscar for treatment; he now earns $45 a week working at a nearby kitchen. Doctors recommended that Oscar have his own room because of his weakened immune system. "The doctor has no idea," Decker says, "that the family lives in a cardboard shack." Raising $30,000 in donations, Decker has bought materials that Vargas is using to build a four-bedroom home. But now, after more bad news from the doctor, it looks as though Oscar may never get to live there. "It is very serious," Vargas tells Decker, who, at first, refuses to accept the news. "We will make the boy well," Decker insists, his face twisting as he chokes back tears. Gathering himself, he tells a visitor, "I can't say goodbye. That kid has wrapped himself around my heart." The mood lightens as Decker steps out, then comes back wearing his police uniform. Oscar grins. As Decker gets ready to leave, he turns to Vargas. "Whatever happens, we will be with you," he says. "You and your family have given me so much. Our languages may be different, but our hearts are the same."
Know a hero? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address. For more about Bob Decker and Paper Houses, go to paperhouses.org.