San Juanico in the Baja Peninsula is a continent away from Brandywine, yet the Mexican villagers there now have a life-and-death bond with the Maryland town.
Three Prince George's County men who participated in off-the-road races in Baja in November were struck by the extreme poverty in the village of less than 300 people and its lack of 20th century conveniences.
They decided to help with a civic project: finding an ambulance for San Juanico.
"The village is several huts with straw roofs and dirt floors," said Mark Schwien, who operates a Brandywine-based motorcycle dealership and has been racing since the 1960s.
"No gas station, no hotel, only one restaurant, and that looks like a Tiki bar. It was run by a Mexican lady in her thirties, who lives with her three daughters in part of the same building. They had this big jug where they were taking up donations for an ambulance. There couldn't have been more than $200 in it."
With Schwien were Alvin Meinhardt, also of Brandywine, and Tom Heyser of Laurel. They were driving through the area to familiarize themselves with the race course. The race, which draws about 300 drivers of cars, trucks, buggies and motorcycles, runs through rugged terrain including mountains, desert and mud.
According to Meinhardt, the men were moved by the restaurant owner's personal tragedy. "Here we were with this lobster dinner and beer, and she started crying," he said. "We found out her husband had been a fisherman who was killed in a maritime accident." She told the men that if San Juanico had had an ambulance, her husband could have been taken to the nearest hospital, 50 to 75 miles away, and might have lived.
Meinhardt, who runs an automobile parts business, often comes across ambulances for sale at auctions. But as the men discussed trying to arrange a transfer of an ambulance from the East Coast, they decided that the shipping distance appeared to be too large an obstacle.
But on the flight home, Schwien said, he was still wrestling with the problem and told another racing associate about the situation. The associate, Sal Fish, president of SCORE International, a California-based organization for off-road racing buffs, listened to the San Juanico saga. He told Schwien that if he could get the ambulance, Fish would make sure that it got to the village.
"We told him we'd have one in 120 days," Schwien said. But the task was tougher than the three men expected. "We couldn't find the proper kind," he said. "An old Cadillac ambulance wasn't right for a town that's 40 miles away from all paved roads."
In March, Meinhardt finally came across an ambulance at a company in New Castle, Del. It was a 1972 Chevrolet van equipped with two cots and had been driven 29,000 miles. It came from a small town in New York state where it was little used.
The trio bought it for $3,500 and drove it to Brandywine. Then the Brandywine fire department outfitted the van with leftover medical supplies.
Schwien said: "Sal was shocked -- it was so good. He said the ambulance was showroom-ready." Fish went to Brandywine and drove the ambulance to Detroit, where another racer picked it and shipped it by truck to California. Fish then picked it up again and drove it to San Juanico.
"I don't imagine they'll use it but once a month," Schwien said. "It should last them a long time, if they use it properly."
"The Baja is an area that needs help," Schwien said. " . . . Here was a situation where we could do something good and know it didn't end up in someone else's pocket."
Heyser added: "How could you not do it? It wasn't a lot of money for us. The racers use the land there and destroy their fragile roads. If we, the racers, each chipped in $10 or $20, it could really go a long way down there. And it helps dispel the image of the ugly American."