The Bottles and Cans of Inspired Saving

Allworth’s CEO Scott Hanson reflects on a recent trip that forever altered the perspectives of everyone involved.


I was in Tijuana, Mexico, last week, with a group of friends.

We’d traveled there to build a house for a family.

In reflecting on this event, I really think it’s a story about the good things that can happen if we keep believing and moving forward. 

You’ve probably heard of operations like this, or maybe you’ve participated in a “build” of some kind on your own. 

You get a group of people together and you’re put to work building a house for a family.

Obviously, everyone’s definition of charity and their personal comfort level of commitment is unique to them.

But whether you occasionally drop a dollar in a cup, leave clothing off at Goodwill, spend time at a non-profit, or if you commit yourself to letting every third car merge in bumper-to-bumper traffic (never underestimate the power of that), everyone is familiar with the sensation that comes with doing something nice.

And, in line with something I’ve heard many times over my life, the emotional benefits of giving are as lasting for the benefactor as they are for the beneficiary.

Despite our best efforts, due to questionable decision making, some people end up in places we wish they wouldn’t, while others are born into impossible circumstances and never have much or any choice at all.

There are lots of realities.

The family we built the home for consisted of a mother (I’d say she was about 40), a grandmother and two small children. Their existing shelter, a place they’d lived for a long time, was small, leaky, dank, and had no running water or electricity.  

The floor was dirt and one of the walls was corrugated iron held in-place by chicken wire.

This family lives and has lived their entire lives in abject poverty.  

As a part of the backstory, what we learned about this family is that the one thing they owned was the tiny parcel of land they lived on (which couldn’t have been more than 1/10th of an acre).

As part of the selection process, the family was screened and interviewed, but owning the land is a requirement for getting a house because it means they have “skin in the in the game.”

Barring something terrible, no one can ever take it away from them.   

The first morning, we arrived via vans (there were 15 of us), we met the family, and then we threw ourselves into building a tiny-but-sturdy three-room house measuring about 400 square feet.

Initially wide-eyed, the family stayed back. (I suppose on some level, they couldn’t believe this was happening. And, perhaps on another, they might have even been suspect about our intentions.)

But, little by little, they moved closer and closer, and they began to smile more and interact, and as they started to see this thing take shape, it wasn’t long before the seven-year-old boy was painting, the mother was hauling supplies, and the young daughter was trailing after some of the women on our crew and helping them work.  

Of course, the story ends with this family having a tiny house (and some furniture) to live in that not only won’t leak, but which has an actual floor.

They also now have lighting so the children can do their homework at night.

With no education, low paying work (the grandmother was quite elderly, and the mother makes about $12 a day), and certainly no family money, I wondered how they came to own this little piece of Earth?

My impression was that, among other small side gigs, the family collected bottles and cans from alongside the roads and highways around their town to turn into money.

I’m sure it took years and years, decades, even, to save that money. And all so they could buy land and construct a makeshift shack on a lot in a gang-ridden neighborhood as a step toward their dream of safety and stability.

I’ve volunteered to build houses before (and those of you who build things for a living know this), but the actual work is physically hard but satisfying. The house was not prefabricated. It didn’t just snap together. In fact, only the concrete foundation was in place when we arrived.

The non-profit we worked with has been doing this a long time, and so there’s an efficient, tried and true building process.

Everything moved at lightning speed.

And, at the end of the two-day build, there stood a house.

The last thing we did was hold a ceremony where the keys were presented to the family.

With her voice cracking, the mother read a touching, hand-written letter of thanks while one of the guides from the non-profit translated the words for those of us who don’t speak Spanish.

Tears were shed by nearly all.

As we piled into the vans to leave, the family stood on the stoop of their house and waved. I know they were happy, but I also sensed that they were overwhelmed and, like many of us, perhaps even a little exhausted by it all.

As we drove away, I felt glad to be going home.

Along the 30-minute drive to the border, I found myself thinking of what it is to work hard and save with no promise of a positive outcome. To keep believing and moving forward.  

In a bit of a haze, I watched the side of the highway speed by. Discarded tires, bags of trash, clothing: there was garbage everywhere.

Eventually, however, I began to see the bottles and cans.