In November 2010, Erik Ochoa had “lost all hope,” he tells PEOPLE.
The father of two was living in a windowless 6×6 shack in Tijuana, Mexico, with his wife and children. The entire family slept on a mattress on the dirt floor and went to the bathroom in a hole in the ground.
The parents worried the conditions of the family’s living situation would hinder 5-year-old Erik and 3-year-old Lupita’s chances at succeeding in school.
Then, “like a dream,” Erik says, everything changed. Eighteen students from Calgary, Alberta, descended on the site of the family’s home. Two days later, the Ochoas were given the keys to their new house – a modest wooden structure with windows, three rooms, a bathroom, beds and an oven.
“For the first time we felt secure as a family,” Erik says of the moment he and his family walked into their new home. “We cried tears of joy.”
The Ochoas received their home through Homes of Hope, a program of Youth With a Mission San Diego/Baja (YWAM) that aims to break the cycle of poverty by providing adequate housing to families in the developing world. Since its founding by Sean and Janet Lambert in 1990, the organization has built over 5,320 homes in 21 countries with help from over 105,000 volunteers.
As Lambert explains, the homes are small – on average ranging from 16×20 to 20×20 – but their impact is enormous.
Giving a child a functional, sufficient home improves academic and health outcomes. “Children that come back to a home are three times more likely to stay in school,” Lambert, 56, tells PEOPLE. “Getting people off of dirt and onto concrete floors reduces respiratory problems and just makes the family so much healthier.”
More than anything, Lambert says, the homes transform these families lives by changing their thinking.
“The real curse of poverty is an inability to think properly about your own future,” he says. “When somebody has a home, they immediately parent differently.”
“I remember one woman [who received a home] said to us, ‘I always knew there was a God, I just didn t know he cared about me,’ ” Lambert shares.
Families are connected with Homes of Hope through local governments, churches and community leaders. The group prioritizes families with children because, as Lambert explains, “every child should grow up in a home.”
Recipient families must also own the land their houses will be built on. “I’ve found if you have a giving equation where someone puts in financially equal at least in some way to what you’re going to give them it works,” Lambert says.
That investment gives the families figurative and literal ownership of their homes that lasts. A survey found that 93 percent of the families who received homes through the organization’s work in Ensenada, Mexico, were still living in the home they received – 10 years later.
In addition to changing lives of recipients, the organization is known to have a lasting impact on its volunteers. “My wife says Homes of Hope is a gateway drug to a life of service,” Lambert jokes.
Indeed, the organization does inspire some seriously dedicated volunteers – its reigning “most dedicated” volunteer has returned a record 75 times. In May, many of these volunteers returned for the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration in Tijuana and Ensenada. To mark the banner occasion, more than 500 individuals came together to build 25 homes in just one weekend.
Laura Wilkinson was one of 19 Olympic athletes that headed to Mexico to take part in the effort. The gold medalist in diving says she realized the organization’s true impact when members of a recipient community showed up to help out in her group’s build.
“The pastor of their church and a whole bunch of people showed up to help out because they live in that community too,” Wilkinson, 38, tells PEOPLE. “They’re not even just building one house – they’re empowering and mobilizing the entire community.”
Even among such an accomplished group, Wilkinson says building the home in two days gave a new sense of empowerment.
“It really changes your heart to see what people in that situation are like,” she says. “They’re just like you and me and they have needs that we can actually fulfill. I didn’t know I could build a house.”
Ato Boldon, an Olympic medalist runner who worked alongside Wilkinson, agrees.
“For Olympians, we get a little jaded at this point in our lives, so to see everybody humble themselves and get involved in this thing was kind of eye-opening,” the 42-year-old tells PEOPLE.
Boldon says his entire group was so moved by the experience that they’re planning to come back each year for a new build.
“I would not be surprised if our group is still together 20 years from now building homes,” he says.
Even home recipients find themselves coming back – like the Ochoas, for example. Five years after receiving a home of their own, Josephina and Erik are working to help the organization interview and select recipient families.
“We want to multiply the great things that others have done for us,” Erik says. “We want other families to have a roof over their heads and to feel the same hope and security that we now have. We want other families to realize that God loves and cares for them.”