Engineer Mike James of Ahwatukee held a garage sale to help raise money to build homes in Mexico for poverty-stricken people.

You never know where a garage sale will lead you.

Recently, I found myself at a windblown, off-grid campsite in Mexico.

I’d traveled there to help a group with their task of building homes for homeless people – all because I chanced upon a garage sale fundraiser last summer in Ahwatukee.

Mike James, an engineer and professor at Arizona State University, held the sale, which raised $350 for the-home building cause.

James is the technical advisor for the Amor Ministries campsite near Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), where volunteers from the U.S. and worldwide stay in their RVs or tents while building homes alongside Mexican families. Over 2,000 people come to build about 100 homes each year.

He recently messaged me that he was having another fundraising garage sale.

I showed up to see what I needed to buy. I found some books, a bicycling shorts-and-shirt outfit and a box of funny fake noses. Mike is known for his lighthearted sense of humor, which sometimes involves costuming, but he must have decided against using these particular noses.

Among his most unique sales items were two boxes of 1940s player-piano rolls. He discovered them on a neighborhood curb during the last quarterly bulk trash pick-up week. They turned out to be a top seller.

I admire his eco-mindedness in rescuing these vintage treasures from oblivion and finding them new homes and leveraging them to help someone get a new home, too.

Mike said he has lived in Ahwatukee “forever-ish.”

“In 1985, my wife and I drove the ‘power-line’ (Pecos Road) from Laveen to Ahwatukee and looked north to the mountains and said, ‘Wouldn’t that be a great place to live?’” he recalled, adding:

“We moved here in 1988 and raised our three daughters, Andrea, Melissa and Emily. Chandler Road was dirt from the freeway to 48th Street. We really liked the ‘junkyard’ at Ray and 48th because of all the interesting old vehicles there.”

“Life is great here,” he said. “We are privileged. We need to be the best stewards of that privilege.”

I asked Amor’s co-founder, Gayla Congdon, what her nonprofit group has done most to help people since its beginnings in 1980.

One experience she shared stood out to me:

“One week during heavy rains, we completed several new houses. One house was built for a woman we saw living under a tarp with her little boy. With tears in her eyes, she gave my husband a photograph of a smiling little girl. ‘Who is this, Maria?’ my husband asked.

“That is my daughter. She died two weeks ago after getting pneumonia from the rains. You couldn’t save her, but you have saved my son’s life and mine by building this house.”

For most of us in Ahwatukee, rain usually only brings the risk of getting our car dirty. For the poor in our neighboring country, rain regularly brings the risk of losing a child’s life.

Almost half of Mexicans live in extreme poverty. The minimum wage is $4.25 US dollar per day (not per hour), and workers earn much less in rural areas.

Amor’s initial focus was on Mexican orphanages. The ministry soon realized that these orphanages were filled with children whose families had nowhere to live but under a tarp or at the local dump.

They sent their children to the orphanages so they could have the basic necessities of clean water, food, a roof, and clothes. Amor realized they could have the most impact by building homes to keep families together.

When families have homes, money can be spent on required school uniforms, food and clothes. They still have no safety net for medical care or the quality of life we take for granted in the United States.

Children without a place to stay are vulnerable to exploitation, so having actual walls and a roof to hold a family together averts human trafficking. Amor has now built homes for 19,000 families throughout Mexico.

I asked James the question he gets so often: “Why do you go to a foreign country to help people when there are so many needy people here?”

“I reach out to people in the U.S. with Habitat for Humanity, the Sojourner Center (a local domestic violence shelter), teaching the Design for the Developing World class at ASU, and in my daily interactions,” he replied.

“Follow your voice,” he added. “Whatever it tells you is OK. But serve! Every day is a great day to get involved.”

James has been involved with Amor since 1999. In 2006, he led a group of 150 people from Mountain View Lutheran Church in building six houses in a week.

Amor is an inclusive organization that welcomes people of all faiths and backgrounds. Schools, religious groups and clubs have participated.

When I was there, I met Dennis Smith of a Phoenix Harley club who was happy to be there for his 12th home-building trip.

If you’re interested in helping: or contact James at


-Kelly Athena is Ahwatukee’s “Garage Sale Girl” as well as a master gardener and sustainability leader. Information:

(1) comment


I’ll check in here if I get the time. I’m finding it interesting.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.