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'I couldn't just cross my arms and turn away'

  • Story Highlights
  • El Paso native Maria Ruiz brings aid to hundreds of impoverished Mexicans
  • She crosses the border several times a week to the outskirts of Juarez
  • Her family's ministry is building community kitchen, orphanage and trade school
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EL PASO, Texas (CNN) -- El Paso native Maria Ruiz knows firsthand how different life can be a mere 30-minute drive south of her Texas home.

The sight of families living in homes made of wooden pallets pushed Maria Ruiz into action.

The sight of families living in homes made of wooden pallets pushed Maria Ruiz into action.

"Just by crossing the border, you're in a Third World country," Ruiz said.

For 12 years, she's traveled several times a week to the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico, bringing aid to hundreds of impoverished children and their families.

Ruiz's family has roots in Juarez, but it wasn't until 1996 that she ventured outside the city.

There, for the first time, she saw poverty in the extreme. People lived in homes made of wooden pallets. The elementary school was built of makeshift materials and had no running water or electricity. Teachers told her that many children were failing because they were hungry.

"My heart went out to those kids," Ruiz recalled. "I couldn't just cross my arms and turn away from it. I needed to do something."

Ruiz got donations from El Paso businesses, and within one week, she was running a food program out of her home. She cooked meals in her kitchen and drove the food south to the Juarez school.

She fed approximately 1,200 children every day for three and a half years, until the businesses she depended on for donations shut down in 1999.

But that didn't stop Ruiz from helping the children in Juarez. Now, working with her husband and two children, she gathers donations from around El Paso -- food, clothing, toys, even furniture -- and distributes them at local "giveaways" a couple of times a month.

This is no easy task. The Mexican government charges customs fees when large amounts of goods are brought across the border. To avoid this, Ruiz makes several trips every week.

"You bring the stuff little by little, like the ants," she said.

Although the trip south can be just 30 minutes, long lines coming back into the U.S. mean the return trip can take a couple of hours. On top of that, Juarez is at the center of a drug war, so Ruiz needs to take precautions to ensure her safety. But for her, helping kids in need is worth the effort. Video Watch Ruiz describe why she takes risks to help kids »

"When you make a child smile," she said, "it's awesome."

Although conditions have improved, most families that Ruiz helps still live in poverty, so the Ruiz family has plans to do even more.

They're building a community kitchen with space to feed 500, an orphanage for 100 residents and a trade school. They work on the complex every weekend, and although there's more to do, they're hoping to be open this summer.

The very thought of seeing the orphanage up and running makes Ruiz smile. Video Watch Ruiz describe how she's helping turn a hill into a haven »

"It'll be a dream come true when it happens," she said. "I pray that it is soon."

Strong religious beliefs help keep Ruiz motivated, and her family's efforts are part of their ministry, called JEM (Jesus es Mana) Ministries. Their Juarez complex even includes a small sanctuary where her husband preaches every Sunday. But Ruiz stresses that they're happy to help anyone, regardless of their beliefs.

"We are open to the community as a whole," she said. "It's equal for everybody." Video Watch Ruiz talk about bringing aid across the border »

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Ruiz says the children have kept her coming back to Juarez. When she reflects on her work, she doesn't consider herself a hero.

"I know I can do much more."

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