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Man raises money to help poor in Mexico

Beth rickers/Daily Globe Paul "Jak" Eich is shown at his nephew's home in Milford, Iowa, where he is recuperating from hip replacement surgery. The broken hip derailed his plans to raise money to help poor people in Mexico.

MILFORD, Iowa -- Just about every May, Paul "Jak" Eich packs up his car and heads north from his current home in Mexico to his former home area of southwest Minnesota-northwest Iowa. The purpose of this trip isn't just to reconnect with family and friends. He also hopes to raise money to help the poor people -- children in particular -- in his adopted town of Zitacuaro, Michoacán, Mexico.

But a tragic fall derailed Jak's fundraising plans this year. Instead of driving a vehicle filled with handmade goods to sell at an area flea market, Jak hopped a plane with a broken hip.

"I made 2,000 crosses out of rare and beautiful woods," explained the 78-year-old. "I had them all loaded in the car, ready to go, and instead I had to fly back. ... I fell off a barstool, but it was in my workshop. My feet got caught in the bottom rungs. It was the most painful thing I had in my entire life."

Initially, Jak didn't realize his hip was broken, and he waited more than a week before seeing a doctor. Then he waited another week and a half on a friend who was going to drive him north. When that didn't pan out, he finally got on the plane. Jak underwent hip replacement surgery in Sioux Falls, S.D., a few weeks ago and has been recuperating at a nephew's home in Milford while he makes arrangements to go back to Mexico.

Originally from Sheldon, Iowa, Jak lived for 25 years in the Ihlen/Pipestone area, where he worked as a school custodian and later ran a mining business. An avid traveler who has visited every state and province in North America, he began making trips to Central America in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, which particularly devastated Honduras in 1998.

"I twice raised building material, clothes and school supplies and drove alone from Ihlen to Puerto Cortes, Honduras, and delivered the badly needed supplies," Jak detailed. "Seven hot, dirty days on the road and 3,675 miles one way through the worst bandit-ridden highways of Mexico, across war-torn Guatemala, but I made it happen."

In his retirement, Jak moved to Zitacuaro -- a city that "has the most perfect year-round climate"-- about 10 years ago and continued the legacy of service to others.

"I've got a very nice house, and I spend all my time helping my neighbors and poor families," he explained. "Mostly I help the kids. They're not responsible for their predicament. I only help the very old and the very young, and there are so many wives who have been abandoned by their husbands and have to raise the kids on their own.

"We don't realize the poverty and danger down there," he said about the conditions in Mexico, adding that his home is located in the midst of a hotbed of drug activity. "...Less than three miles from my house, there were 18 police ambushed and killed."

Jak also has pictures of the front of Zitacuaro police station, riddled with bullets, and the front of a bank that was blown up to gain access to the ATM.

"The main reason for the drug wars in Mexico is the drug addicts in the United States," he said, stressing that judges need to sentence counseling for convicted drug addicts and dealers and schools need stronger anti-drug programs.

"Am I scared? No. Concerned, yes," Jak said about living in the midst of the drug wars. "But then I'm concerned up here. That branch on that tree might break off and fall on me. I just don't go out after dark. I close my doors, put the steel bars on and watch TV."

He also has the protection of his four dogs and 14 "adopted" children. To help out his kids, Jak built a school for a poor community; fashioned a small catering cart for a grandmother who was raising her six abandoned grandchildren; and most recently constructed a two-bedroom home for a mother of four who was abandoned by her husband. This May, Jak had hoped to raise money to install a water tank and hook up the water lines.

But Jak thinks that God had another plan in mind on this trip. During his forced hospital stay, Jak made connections that he hopes will help a Mexican woman gain mobility.

"There's a woman down there, her husband works for me quite a bit, and she lost both legs in a car accident. She's 26 years old," Jak explained. "While I was in the hospital, I asked where I could get legs for her."

After hearing about the young woman's plight, hospital staff members began making arrangements to have custom-fitted prostheses made for her.

"They're going to take a team down, make molds, and come back and make her legs," said Jak, admitting that the offer brought tears to his eyes.

Having received the doctor's approval to travel, Jak is eager to get back home and set those plans in motion. And he's anxious to continue with his fundraising so he can help more youngsters.

"I need to raise enough money to get water for the house and to feed and cloth and keep my kids in school," he said. "Who'd have thought at my age that I'd be getting kids off to school? ... I do it because I want other people to do the same thing. To often, you just hear 'me, me, me.' It's not just me, it's us."

A strange billboard for Jak's philosophy is his gravestone, already installed in the Sheldon cemetery. It reads: "God doesn't permit money in heaven, and it will burn up in hell. Spare what you can to help the poor while you're alive." He also wears a ball cap that introduces himself as "Tinker Jak; Jak's Abandoned Kids; 14 and Counting; Will You Help Me Help Them?"

"If everyone helped the poor as much as I do, there wouldn't be any more poor," Jak said. "In the Bible, Cain asks, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' I say, yes, I am my brother's keeper."

Jak accepts monetary donations to continue his work in Mexico. Checks payable to Paul Eich can be sent to First Merchants and Farmers Bank, Box 729, Pipestone 56164. Attention: Katie Einck. Jak can be contacted via email at jak_b744@hotmail.com.

Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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