The Other Side of the Border

In the Sonoran desert, an American dreamer seeds the future

Out there in the mediasphere, solving the U.S.-Mexico immigration crisis seems to depend on things like optimal fence height and calculating the number of National Guard troops it takes to seal a border.

When you live at the border, though, solutions can look different.

Dottee Watkins, a retired developer who resides in Douglas, Ariz., a border city her great-grandfather helped establish, has another idea: eliminate demand. Fences and troops may be useful, but getting rid of the worst effects of poverty can make it more desirable for Mexican people to stay in their country, where, she suggests, they prefer to be.

“How do you fix the border? You get really creative gringos who love to help the poor and want to solve problems and beat the system, and you get it done,” says Watkins, in the I-mean-business cowgirl drawl she earned honestly growing up on an Arizona ranch.

For the past 15 years, Watkins has quietly put her thoughts into action through the Wings of Angels Foundation (, the small nonprofit she founded to combat the extreme poverty that plagues Agua Prieta, Sonora. The sprawling city across the border from Douglas, about 120 miles southeast of Tucson, is home to an estimated 40,000 “extreme poor,” according to Sonoran officials. Wings of Angels tries to stabilize their lives, raise their quality of life and help them take their first steps toward survival—without emigrating.

Operating on a skinflint annual budget of $35,000—a figure that could spark cardiac arrest in the heart of a nonprofit development officer (all U.S. Wings members are unpaid)—the Wings of Angels mission is “propagation,” Watkins says. The idea is to find problems that need fixing, get low-cost solutions under way and then “propagate” them, kind of like Johnny Appleseed.

“We start the first round, and by the obvious worth of the concept, it is automatically carried forward,” Watkins says. “For instance, we installed an inexpensive solar electric system for a blind musician, and when his neighbors showed interest, he taught them how to create their own. We treat people with diabetes, prescribe a healthy diet and show them how to grow their own healthy garden, which they do. We fit armless and legless kids with artificial limbs and see them go on to achievements they thought were impossible.”

With the help of volunteers, Rotary clubs and community members, including the Douglas Fire Department, Wings of Angels now treats hundreds of impoverished families in its Agua Prieta medical and dental clinic, builds and repairs homes, installs cesspools and solar water heaters, grows healthy food and offers a potent model for helping a community that had seemed beyond help.


Wings’ propagation model started when Watkins got “fed up.” In the 1990s, Agua Prieta’s poor population was flocking toward the border in unprecedented numbers, and the Sonoran government was unable to provide basic human services. Mothers were unassisted at birth, resulting in birth defects; disabled people didn’t have a prayer.

Watkins started looking for ways to help.

She soon discovered there were no Spanish-language activities for the deaf in all of Sonora. Deaf children were left to communicate in grunts and screams to their uncomprehending parents, who assumed the situation was hopeless. As the mother of a deaf daughter, Watkins knew it wasn’t.

But she wondered: where do you find Spanish-language signing specialists? She asked a Phoenix librarian who put her in touch with the World Society for the Deaf, an El Paso, Texas, group that soon sent a team to train local teachers and extended families in Mexican Sign Language (MSL). They, in turn, trained additional trainers. The cycle has repeated exponentially throughout Sonora. Agua Prieta’s school for the disabled now offers curriculum classes taught in MSL.

Meanwhile, Watkins met Marge Conroy, a southeastern Arizona physical therapist who specializes in diagnostics. The two women set up a clinic that attracted numerous mothers and their special-needs children, and soon people with all sorts of untreated ailments started showing up. The staff soon included volunteer nurses, doctors and dentists. The Wings of Angels clinic’s medical director, Sister Louise Marie—a nun and nurse practitioner with a lifetime of experience treating the poor in Yemen and on the Navajo Reservation—has given particular attention to treating and preventing diabetes in a community with an overwhelming number of diagnoses.

As the program grew, Wings of Angels brought EMT services for the first time to the desolate highways of northern Sonora—the Mexican government is now replicating the EMT program elsewhere—and began providing much-needed medical equipment to Sonoran residents. One of the earliest Wings volunteers, Ron Becker, delivers truckloads of wheelchairs and other mobility devices he obtains from Denver medical equipment vendors. (A run-in with a cow recently totaled his old truck, and thousands of dollars worth of gear can’t be moved until another truck is found.)

Another volunteer, Bernardino Enriquez, runs the Wings community garden to improve nutrition in the community. Each week, he delivers rich harvests to the elderly and very poor families. And he provides training and seeds to any interested family so that they can start growing their own food.


One of the group’s major projects has been to improve housing. The poorest of the poor live without plumbing or electricity in dirt-floor structures that offer little protection from the desert’s blazing summers or frigid winters. Marcelino Enriquez, an Aqua Prieta builder (and the son of Bernardino), started helping by repairing homes. Now he’s a member of the Wings of Angels staff and designs and supervises building projects, which include several houses a year built by members of the Rotary Club of Logan, Utah. The Logan community also rehabs and donates used ambulances for northern Sonora. Rotarians and their youth groups raise money for building materials and then come south and build in the spring.

“Marcelino puts the foundation in and then teaches our kids how to do the masonry and mix the concrete and lay bricks with a string line,” says Rotarian Fred Berthrong. “We dig cesspools, and we find out who will live here and have them help.” (Berhthrong, a retired nuclear engineer, also masterminded Wings’ solar electric systems for those who can’t afford to buy fuel for propane heaters.)

“I see the difference in their lives,” says Jolynn Carr, a Utah State University student who has volunteered for several years. “When they had nothing, they were so shy and withdrawn. Now they have a house and invite us in. Their whole demeanor has changed.”

The work done by Wings of Angels has not gone unnoticed. “Mexican leadership at all levels of government have responded with gracious acceptance and enthusiasm,” Watkins says. And she knows that, if her efforts beget more good works by others—both at the grassroots and official levels—even more is possible.

“When we started doing these things, my dream was that people who saw similar problems in their neighboring border towns would see our success and replicate it,” she says. “Poor and desperate people need the same things everywhere.”