Development center an ‘indispensable’ blessing for Mexico community

‘I think the whole world needs this program,’ says district president about CenDes initiative of the Church in Agua Prieta

The place where learning, service, love and unity meet is located in Agua Prieta, Mexico.

Since January, the town has relished the classes of Centro de Desarrollo (CenDes), or the “Development Center” program. This initiative — whose classes are taught inside a local meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — aims to teach self-reliance and a variety of skills that allow its students to thrive in their personal and family lives.

What started in Agua Prieta only a few months ago has since gained great attention and admiration from thousands in its community.

President Alejandro Carranza Agustín, president of the Church’s Sierra Madre México District, said: “I feel very blessed, very privileged that the Lord has laid His eyes on this place for there to be a project, something as beautiful as the development center.”

He added, “I think the whole world needs this program.”

Adults standing in front of a banner that says "Welcome."
CenDes volunteers welcome special guests and state government authorities on March 16, 2023, at a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

What is CenDes?

CenDes started as a pilot program in Campeche, Mexico, where the Church’s Welfare and Self-Reliance Department opened the first development center on Sept. 16, 2022.

The project, according to the Church’s Mexico Newsroom, aims “to help all people — both members and nonmembers — discover greater happiness by learning to be more self-reliant; develop the ability to solve their own problems and challenges; and improve their family relationships.”

Almost a year and a half later, a similar center opened Jan. 23 in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, just minutes south of the United States-Mexico border. Approximately 720 people attended the new development center’s first day. Only a tenth were Latter-day Saints.

Since then, Agua Prieta’s development center — the 10th in Mexico — has seen astonishing growth, and around 1,200 people come from all over the community weekly to participate. The development center’s classes, taught by volunteers in a local Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, are free to join and open to the public.

To accommodate the great number of students, classes are spread throughout the day, anywhere from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesdays to Saturdays. All ages are invited to attend, from adults to young adults to youth. The center even offers some classes for participants ages 4-6.

A group of members and missionaries standing together on a stage.
CenDes instructors, service missionaries and teaching missionaries are recognized at an event held March 16, 2024, to explain the program to community members of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

Learning self-reliance through 50 classes

The center’s approximately 50 classes include topics about helpful skills, like cooking, first aid, sign language and family history; physical activity, like dance, basketball, karate and yoga; talents, like baking, piano, chess and painting; and crafts, like crocheting, carpentry, embroidery and amigurumi.

Some courses are provided through materials from the Church of Jesus Christ, like the classes for emotional resilience, personal finances, starting a business and EnglishConnect. Other courses without a manual are taught by volunteer Church members or nonmembers willing to share their knowledge and expertise.

The various classes of CenDes aim to teach the same lesson: self-reliance.

“The development center is an opportunity that comes to communities so they can be self-reliant,” said Sister Osbelia Cordero. She and her husband, Elder Claudio Cordero, are local service missionaries and directors of the development center in Agua Prieta. “This is our goal: to teach people to become self-reliant. Then, they can come and know the gospel from this side.”

Kids and adults standing next to a large table of cupcakes.
CenDes instructors and students showcase their baking skills to members of the community on March 16, 2024, at a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

The volunteers of the center frequently see students putting into practice what they’re learning to better their daily lives.

“Some who take the baking course have already sold their first cake,” said President Neftalí Villalobos Gonzalez, first counselor in the Sierra Madre District presidency. “Others who are learning to cut hair have already started to earn extra income for their families.”

President Villalobos and his wife, Malena, teach an emotional resilience course at the development center. He recounted: “We’ve loved seeing how people begin to recognize why they are sad, angry, discouraged, with problems of depression, anxiety. And suddenly they tell us that they are no longer angry or that they already feel happier, and this has been a joy for us.”

President and Sister Villalobos standing next to a table with manuals from the Church of Jesus Christ.
President Neftalí Villalobos Gonzalez, first counselor in the Sierra Madre México District presidency, and wife, Malena, explain self-reliance courses of the Church of Jesus Christ available in Agua Prieta's CenDes program on March 16, 2024. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

An ‘indispensable’ program for the community

Prior to the launch of CenDes in Agua Prieta, local leaders didn’t know what to expect or what response would be received from the community, said President Villalobos. Yet the program has already exceeded expectations.

“Before, we thought that CenDes was necessary,” he said, “but now, I believe that it is indispensable after seeing all the needs of all kinds that exist in our community — economically, emotionally and spiritually. In CenDes, all these aspects are covered.”

The quantity of people who have attended and received help through the classes is a miracle, said President Carranza.

“Coexistence between members of the Church and nonmembers has increased,” he said, “and we feel an atmosphere of work, coordination and mutual help.”

The development center’s bond with the community is evident even on social media. Despite being created in December 2023, Agua Prieta’s CenDes Facebook page already has over 1,800 followers.

“The community is being very blessed together with those we serve at CenDes,” said President Villalobos, who has helped organize the CenDes project since its inception in Agua Prieta. “We feel very grateful for this inspired program.”

A group of women dancing on stage.
CenDes instructors and students perform a Zumba dance routine at an event held March 16, 2024, to explain the program to community members of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

Bhrendha LuVa — a CenDes instructor of personal finance and balloon twisting classes — has seen miracles such as students learning to be self-reliant, more people requesting visits from missionaries and inactive members returning to church.

“There are many people who are grateful for a program like CenDes in our community, where a nonprofit or religious organization provides support in endless courses just to serve them,” said LuVa. “And people realize that, and they gladly go take the classes.”

Myrna Cecilia Celaya Ortiz, who has worked with logistics for Agua Prieta’s CenDes, said the community-centered approach has been crucial in building connections.

“I think there’s nothing like it,” she said. “There are people on the border of Agua Prieta who can entertain themselves with free courses. I know that the rate of marginalization and suicide is high there, but I know that CenDes is a place full of people willing to help those who feel alone.”

Elder Claudio Cordero and others standing around a table with handmade clothing.
Elder Claudio Cordero — a service missionary and director of the local development center, right — and others explain classes offered in the CenDes program in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

‘I can feel a spark of peace’

One attendee greatly blessed by the CenDes program is Janeth Valenzuela, who took dancing and balloon twisting classes, and whose four children have taken baking, karate and dancing classes.

“It’s a family atmosphere where we all can participate,” she said, an environment where children and adults alike have access to many resources they otherwise wouldn’t.

Valenzuela was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ on March 30, and she expressed gratitude for the welcoming branch members and missionaries who have helped Valenzuela and her family as they’ve become interested in learning the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“We are very happy and eager to continue learning,” she said. “Since we’ve come, great blessings have come to my family.”

Although the program focuses on educating rather than baptizing visitors, many students have been drawn to a special spirit of love and peace found nowhere else.

Janeth Valenzuela standing with Sister Osbelia Cordero and Elder Claudio Cordero.
Janeth Valenzuela, center, poses with service missionaries Sister Osbelia Cordero, left, and Elder Claudio Cordero — directors of the development center in Agua Prieta — before her baptism on Saturday, March 30. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

Sister Cordero likes to ask students what they enjoy about their classes. She recounted that one student told her, “I can feel a spark of peace in this place.” Another said, “How beautiful it feels inside.”

After a Zumba dance class, one woman said of the Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, “The building is beautiful. I’ve passed by this place for 23 years, and I’ve never entered.”

Sister Cordero said, “I believe that for all the people who come here, years would pass without them seeing the inside.” With the CenDes program, though, thousands are feeling the uplifting influence that emanates from its selfless volunteers.

As people come to the meetinghouse to learn from the courses, said Elder Cordero, they automatically learn the gospel through the Christlike demeanor of volunteers. “So, CenDes helps bring people who are not members of the Church closer to the Church.”

President Carranza said, “Usually, the people who attend feel welcome, they feel loved, they feel happy and listened to. Many of them have very serious problems at home, and when they get [to the development center], they feel relief because they can feel the Holy Spirit and they can feel the peace of Jesus Christ.”

Visitors can feel the love of God, he said, even if they don’t recognize exactly what it is they’re feeling.

CenDes instructors and students talking inside a meetinghouse.
CenDes instructors and students chat Jan. 23, 2024, after a class at a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. The development center, which had opened earlier in the day, holds around 50 classes. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

Giving time and efforts to bless the community

“The miracle I have seen is that the members are constantly serving at the center almost every day, that they have given their time and efforts to bless other people in the community,” said President Carranza.

CenDes offers local Saints the opportunity to serve those around them by sharing their God-given talents with the community. And how do these volunteers feel to be involved in such a program? Honored.

“We are very happy to be able to serve His children,” said Elder Cordero, “and we know that anytime we serve them, we are serving God too.”

Sister Cordero agreed that this work is a joy, sharing gratitude for the opportunity to serve Agua Prieta at this time. “It’s something special to be able to work for the Lord in this way, from this side.”

None of the volunteers could do it alone, she said. “It’s a team effort, and I know that the Lord is at the head of it.”

A group of kids performing karate on stage.
CenDes students show newly earned karate skills at an event held March 16, 2024, to explain the program to community members of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero

The history of the Church in Agua Prieta

As a boy in Douglas, Arizona, Roger Gonzalez would walk south to Agua Prieta and attend Church in the town’s Latter-day Saint chapel. He had been involved with the area since his parents joined the newly organized Agua Prieta Branch when he was just 3 years old.

The branch was created Aug. 5, 1956, under the direction of Southern Arizona Stake President Jared J. Trejo, with Heber A. Huish sustained as branch president. The town’s first meetinghouse was later dedicated Feb. 13, 1966, by Elder A. Theodore Tuttle, then of the First Council of the Seventy.

Gonzalez attended the branch until 1968, when the family’s membership records were transferred to their hometown of Douglas. Yet he still remembers fondly his early experience in Agua Prieta, from the testimony-building youth conferences to the Christlike branch members who were willing to sacrifice everything for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

An old red-brick building of one story.
Before the dedication of a local meetinghouse in 1966, Latter-day Saints in Agua Prieta, Mexico, would meet in a building owned by Samuel Gonzalez, uncle of Roger Gonzalez, to hold sacrament meetings. The building, pictured in May 2022, stands as a testament to the faith of early Latter-day Saint pioneers in northern Mexico. | Provided by Roger Gonzalez

“The spirituality that’s grown in that area is just tremendous,” said Gonzalez, who now lives in Provo, Utah. “You can feel it when you go there. And it’s really interesting to watch the members and their engagement in the gospel and how involved they are and how much they love the Lord.”

Latter-day Saints in Agua Prieta, he said, greatly enjoy making connections with one another. “It’s a genuine love-my-brother type of sociality where they’re always looking for ways to help each other. And this is what they’re doing.”

Now with the CenDes program in Agua Prieta, community members and members of the Church of Jesus Christ are joining to learn, educate and serve as one.

“They see the excitement,” said Gonzalez. “They see everything that’s going on, and they want to be a part of it.”

A group of instructors standing together on a stage.
CenDes instructors are recognized at an event held March 16, 2024, to explain the program to community members of Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. | Provided by Elder Claudio Cordero
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