One evening in 1978, Hans and Nancy Benning attended a church social in the San Fernando Valley, but took a seat when the dancing began. That's when they met another non-dancing couple — Chuck and Charla Pereau — and the four of them got to talking about this and that.
The Bennings told their new friends about how they met at a violin-making school in Germany and owned a music shop on Ventura Boulevard. The Pereaus had a pretty interesting story too. Chuck was an L.A. city fireman and Charla was a homemaker who also oversaw a Mexican orphanage that she and Chuck had established 10 years earlier, after adopting a Mexican child and making trips to Baja with donated church goods.
A Mexican orphanage? Hans and Nancy, who believe that faith and service are inseparable, were impressed. So they drove south across the border, cruised past Ensenada and kept going another 2 1/2 hours through mountains and valleys — all the way down to where roads turn to dust and an orphanage offers a second chance to children of misfortune.
Thirty-four years later, the Bennings are still going back to the little town of Vicente Guerrero, usually once every two weeks.
"It's a huge part of our lives," Nancy told me one day at Benning Violins, adding that she and Hans had sponsored and nurtured several Mexican children they now consider a part of their extended family. "We've been working at the orphanage since 1979, and I taught violin there for 18 years. Hans is in charge of a men's rehab center, which he calls the rancho, and he's building a music studio in a prison."
You'd think the Bennings were in their 20s or 30s, for all their energy. Their trips to Mexico run from Sunday to Wednesday each time, and the moment they get home, they dig into work that has piled up at their violin shop.
But Hans is 70 and Nancy 72. And rather than slow down, they've devoted even more time to their mission in Mexico as they've gradually ceded daily operations of the violin shop to their son, Eric.
I asked if I could tag along on one of their trips, and Hans said sure. He thought he could even get me into the Mexican prison, but I had my doubts. When he called me back, he said it had all been arranged. The Bennings have forged so many bonds in three decades of charity work, their goodwill opens doors. Even at a prison.
Hans, who was born in Germany and speaks German-accented English and Spanish, told me to be at the Benning home in Sherman Oaks at precisely 4 a.m. on a Sunday in October. He said he would already have headed south on his own, at precisely 3 a.m., in a truck carrying tools and supplies. Nancy always follows him one hour later in a Chevy Tahoe, sometimes carrying a cargo of restored and donated instruments for orphans and other students.
"You'll get to Ensenada at 7:10 and we'll have breakfast together," Hans said.
I noted that he didn't say we'd arrive at "around 7." They've made this trip literally hundreds of times, so there was no guesswork involved. We picked up Charla Pereau on the way, at her home in Laguna Woods, and Chuck loaded some food and other supplies into the Tahoe for us to deliver to the orphanage. Charla, now in her 80s, has made more than 1,000 trips to Baja since the '60s.
Hans was off by two minutes. We met up with him in Ensenada at 7:12, and were joined at breakfast by a young man named Tito Quiroz.
"He's practically like another son to us," said Nancy, who (with Hans) has three sons and five grandchildren.
The Bennings met Tito, now 27, when he was a young lad whose parents worked at the orphanage. Tito wanted to take violin lessons, but Nancy told him he was a little too young.
With that, Tito burst into tears, and Nancy couldn't handle it. So she began teaching Tito when he was 8 or 9.
"Right away, he was one of my best students," said Nancy.
Today, Tito is an accomplished musician, and he's passing along the gift Nancy gave him to the next generation. In her honor, he established and runs a music academy in Ensenada, a city that offered little formal training in classical music before Tito began teaching out of his garage five years ago.
With hustle and charm, and lots of donated instruments from the Bennings and others, Tito has recruited hundreds of students and outgrown two small studios, doing business now in a spacious two-story building in downtown Ensenada. He and his students perform at retirement centers, orphanages and special events, and he also teaches music at an Ensenada prison — the same prison where Hans is building a studio.
And the name of Tito's music school?
Benning Academia de Musica.
"They've taught me everything, not just the violin," Tito said. "They made me the person I am, and I wanted to honor them somehow."
Tito reaches out to the poorest families, who come in on scholarship, their training funded in part by donations and by the fees middle-class families are able to pay. The academy members are like a very large family, says Tito, who believes that in his troubled country, music can be a healing force, and a way to build pride and develop a greater sense of community.
"The idea is something like El Sistema," Tito said of the Venezuelan music program that L.A. Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel helped cultivate.
The day we arrived in Mexico, the Benning Academia orchestra performed at an orphanage on the famed Ruta de Vino northeast of Ensenada. The orphanage director, Jonathan Lopez, told me the children there have lost their parents to accidents and violence. Some were given up by families overwhelmed by their children's physical or mental disabilities.
"It's a little bit of everything," he said.
Nancy Benning tuned violins for children in the orphanage's music education program. With nervous fingers but big smiles, the youngsters opened the outdoor concert with a short piece that drew hearty applause. They then joined the audience to watch the Academia orchestra — which included young children as well as some of Baja's finest adult mariachi players — in a rousing celebration of ranchera romantica and other local music.
We traveled early the next morning to Charla's orphanage, the Foundation for His Ministry. Along the way, Nancy and Tito pointed out the site of a horrific car accident 10 years ago that orphaned seven children. One of those seven, Marlen, is among the several kids Hans and Nancy have sponsored over the years — there's also Jose, Gabby and Oscar, among others. Marlen, now an adult, helps Tito manage the music academy.
"This is our home away from home," Nancy said as we drove up to the little brick bungalow that she and Hans live in while working at the mission. An alcove off the living room serves as the music studio where Nancy taught Tito and dozens of others over the years.
Charla, who like the Bennings, shows no sign of slowing down, gave us a tour of the grounds, including the school attended by the 90 orphans. The operation has its own fire department, which also serves the greater community, and a medical center run by a doctor who came through on a tour from Shanghai and decided to stay.
The auditorium, recently rebuilt by Hans and the men from the rancho, is the town social hall. The cribs in the nursery, and other furniture throughout the facility, were built by Hans. The auto shop is run by a man who is a graduate of the rehab program. The cafeteria serves families who work in low-paying jobs in the fields. The bike shop builds custom wheelchairs and other devices for disabled orphans and the chief mechanic is an adult who came to the orphanage as a child after losing both legs in an accident.
Volunteers come from around the world to help out. Some stay a week; some never leave. And there's a macadamia grove and processing plant, with sales helping to finance the entire operation, which has grown to include ministries in Sinaloa, Michoacan and Oaxaca.
Several miles to the north, on a wind-swept bluff overlooking the sea, Hans has spent nine years building a residential recovery center for men with alcohol or drug addiction.
"They walk in here on their own, or the police bring them, and they have to commit to one year," Hans told me. "Nothing is written down, per se, but they're up at 4 a.m., there's one hour of meditation, there's Bible study, everybody works, everybody handles their load. There's no leaving and no outside visits. They come from such troubled lives, they really need structure. I give them three chances. If they mess up, they're out."
He also teaches them electrical work and carpentry (they're now making wooden Christmas toys for the orphans). The men are also helping Hans build an auto repair shop at the rancho.
"I want them to have a skill, so they have something to help them survive when they leave here," said Hans, who leaves the operation in the hands of one of his most senior students when he's gone.
"He's like a father to me," said Rafa, 20, whose mother called while I was speaking to him. She wanted to know if Rafa could come home for Christmas.
Hans spoke to the mother, telling her Rafa had earned his trust, but he wasn't done with the program.
"You can go," Hans told Rafa, "but I'm going to want to see you back here."
Javier, 45, also referred to Hans as a father figure.
"I don't know how he does all this," said Javier. "The time, the money, the heart he gives. This has been a struggle for me, being here. I'm trying to give back by sticking with it."
Back in Ensenada two days later, Hans took a small crew from the rancho beyond the foreboding walls of an overcrowded prison where inmates — ranging from their teens to their mid-20s — sleep on concrete floors. Tito has been teaching music to inmates in the prison chapel while Hans and his crew lay building blocks for the new music room.
"They say they forget everything around them and they just play," said prison director Josefina Inowee, who wanted the inmates with the longest sentences to be the first students, so they've got something to carry them through the ordeal.
"I had never heard classical music before, but I like it," said Luis, one of the prison's best violinists.
The Bennings told me they have always felt safe in Mexico, despite the escalation of drug-related violence. They know that many Mexican families feel terrorized, though, and the Bennings have seen enough poverty and desperation to understand why some Mexicans are desperate to come north, legally or otherwise.
"People are practically starving and can't support their families, and if we can do something for them, maybe they'll be able to survive down there," Nancy told me.
"God has touched our lives," she went on, telling me their house and vehicles are paid for, and they feel blessed to be able to contribute to the spiritual and economic well-being of others. "That's what life is about."
We drove north on Wednesday and Hans and Nancy went back to work repairing violins and cellos. Two weeks later, they would drive back to Mexico and do it all again.
To find out more about the ministry and music academy, or to make donations, go to http://www.academiabenning.com and http://www.ffhm.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun