Ben White of the Lake Chapala Society in Ajijic Reveals How LCS Has been Successfully Serving Expats and Locals Alike for 61 Years, and Their Exciting Plans for the Future
Chuck Bolotin: It’s mid-February 2017 and we have the privilege of chatting with Ben White, President of the Board of Directors of Lake Chapala Society (LCS), in Ajijic, Mexico, right here on their beautiful grounds. One of the reasons why we’re so honored to talk with Ben is that in all our travels on our road trip throughout Mexico and from what we know after reviewing thousands of answers on our site from expats about living in Panama, Nicaragua, Belize, and Portugal, there’s not another expat organization like LCS in terms of organization, reach, and effectiveness. From what you know, Ben, would you agree?
Ben White: That is what I have also observed in my travels. The closest to LCS that I have seen in Mexico is the Biblioteca (library) in San Miguel de Allende. We are celebrating 61 years, making us one of the long-standing expat communities in Mexico. We believe that the success and sustainability of our organization is in reaching out and forming relations with both the expat and the Mexican community to help improve their quality of life at Lakeside.
CB: So that sounds like you have a dual charter. Please expand on that a bit.
Ben White: Our mission is to improve the quality of life for everyone living at Lakeside, which we do through education. We continue a long tradition of sponsoring the Children’s Art Program as well as classes in English. We manage the only Bibliotica in Ajijic as well as financial aid for about 25 young people who are attending college.
CB: These scholarships are for locals?
Ben White: Yes, they’re for local Mexican students who have at least an 8.5 GPA and can demonstrate financial need. For the expat community, we have a full array of 30 different programs each week, from exercise to yoga to lifelong learning.
We also offer personal enrichment classes for members. These are college level courses taught by professors or subject matter experts. They are usually six- to eight-week classes, two times a week, so students get a deep dive into subjects around Mexican history, Mexican literature, living in Mexico, etc. We offer a diversified program that reaches out to the entire community.
CB: Superb. When you say “Lakeside,” give us an idea of the area you’re describing.
Ben White: For us “Lakeside” is from Jocotepec on the west to Chapala and San Nicolas on the east, and as far north as Ixlahuacan. We have a good geographic reach. We have members from both the expat and Mexican communities, although the vast majority are expats.
CB: You have multiple buildings here on the grounds, and it looks like they’ve been here for a long time. Please tell us how this all get started, how LCS got its land, and the people behind the history of Lake Chapala Society.
Ben White: The Lake Chapala Society originally started 61 years ago in a storefront in Chapala. In the beginning, they had about 45 members. Their biggest concerns at that time were mosquito control, establishing a burial place for expats, and teaching young people English. In addition, they ran an English language lending library.
They outgrew their space and a member and local expat named Neill James in Ajijic agreed to rent to LCS the front part of her property. She retained the rear of the property.
Towards the end of her life, Neill James made an agreement with the Lake Chapala Society: in exchange for care during the last years of her life so she could live in her home, she would donate the property to the LCS upon her death.
Neill James was a collector of plants from her travels all over the world and brought many of the plants back to her home. As a result, the plants that you see here today are from other places worldwide. We are sitting in a diverse “Heritage Garden” that is unique to Ajijic.
CB: The grounds here are absolutely wonderful and would be a reason in and of itself to visit. Let’s talk about the structures on the property, starting with Neill James’ old house. What is it being used for now?
Ben White: The upstairs is being used as our computer resource room. The first floor is used to provide offices for our medical services. Her living room, which we refer to as the Sala, is our main meeting space for movies and large groups.
CB: Please give us an oral tour of the areas within LCS and tell us what these areas are used for.
Ben White: When you enter the LCS you encounter the Neill James Library, which contains over 26,000 volumes in English. Next to the library is our DVD collection offering hard to find classics to relatively current movies.
Across from a large koi pond is our Membership Service Office and the Café Corozan. They offer a full service menu, as well a beer and wine, from 10:00 am until 4:00 pm. Beyond the Café is the Heritage Garden and another koi pond.
Next to the pond is the gazeebo, which is regularly used during the week and Saturdays. Just beyond the Gazebo is the Neill James patio and the Sala.
Beyond that is a house that we recently purchased at the back of our property that faces the lake. It gives us an entrance on both a lakefront view and another entrance to the facility. It is currently being used for classrooms and office space. It will renovated and offer more space for program expansion an an artist studio where we can display paintings from our Children’s Art Program. We have 30 years of children’s art projects that are being carefully stored, looking for a permanent place to be displayed.
CB: I also should mention that when we first got here, we went to the Woodstock Festival dance, which was held right here. Please tell us about those type of events.
Ben White: The Woodstock event is part of our fundraising plan to supplement the income generated by membership dues. However, they are designed to bring the community together.
Other events we sponsor during the year include the annual picnic, Mariachi bands and other musical events. This year we are fortunate to host the Mexican singer Jamar, a nominee for a Latin American Grammy, who performed here.
CB: I should mention that there is plenty of room for it. There is a rather big area that was used for dancing at the Woodstock Festival right in the middle of a good-sized garden area. What’s that area called, and how many people do you think it can accommodate?
Ben White: That’s the Neill James Patio. I believe we had around 250 attendees.
CB: They all fit easily. You had a Mexican jazz band from Guadalajara that was great, and of course you had a rock and roll band that played music from the 60s and 70s, which was wonderful.
Let’s talk about membership. How many dues paying members does LCS have?
Ben White: We have 2,500 members. Membership dues cover our operational expenses in terms of maintaining the campus, paying salaries, and office supplies, and then the rest of our budget we raise during the course of the year through events and through our annual giving campaign.
CB: You mentioned the medical services you provide here at LCS. Please tell us what an LCS membership entitles a member to, and what you provide to the community at large, without a membership.
Ben White: The personal enrichment programs I mentioned earlier are members only. We also have movies every week; some are foreign, and some are very recent. Yesterday we had a movie on Hidden Figures, the story about the women that worked for NASA behind the scenes.
We also have exercise programs for members. We have various lifelong learning programs. We have TED Talks where we watch a TED Talk and then we have a discussion afterwards led by someone who is knowledgeable in the area. We have mindfulness programs. I should add that the libraries are members’ only services. Our library is the second largest English language library in Mexico; the largest being in San Miguel de Allende.
CB: Please tell us about the medical services LCS provides here.
Ben White: The medical services are free to the community. We offer diabetes screening, blood pressure screening, and eye exams. In addition, three times a year we sponsor health fairs where people can obtain certain immunizations—flu shots, shingles – for a discounted price.
CB: I believe you also have something here where you help with immigration. Please tell us about that.
Ben White: We lease space to immigration experts who can help with obtaining getting visas for temporary and permanent residence. We also have a program here for INAPAM cards, which are the Mexican discount cards for people who are 60 or older. The card is issued by the state of Jalisco to the federal government. It gives the cardholder discounts on certain services and also serves as an official form of ID for the Mexican government. There are discounts on airline tickets and other things that are geared towards people who are 60 or more. The main thing that I use it for is bus trips because you get from a 30% to 50% discount.
CB: You make it too easy. Considering your 2,500 members, how many expats are there in the whole area?
Ben White: There’s no reliable calculation. In the low season (April – October), it is estimated about 7,000 to 8,000 expats make Lakeside their home. During the high season (November – March) there may be 20,000 expats.
CB: Organizations like the Lake Chapala Society don’t happen by themselves. There are people who drive them. Sometimes there’s someone who comes early on that helps to set the tone and personality of the organization and sometimes it could be a bunch of people who work well together. Are there any stories you’d like to tell, sort of the lore of the LCS that we should know?
Ben White: Well, Neill James was the benefactor who really got a lot of the programs rolling. She worked with a number of legacy artists here who she helped go to school and then have come back and started businesses that still participate with us today. Over the years, there’s been a lot of come and go in terms of people and personalities.
Today we have a more formal governance structure with a Board of Directors and standing committees that help plan for the future. The executive director and his staff manage the day-to-day operations.
The lifeblood of the LCS is our volunteers. We have a core group of 50 to 80 volunteers that swell to as many as 200 committed volunteers without whom we would not be able to offer the programs and services to our members and the community at large.
CB: How much does it cost to become a member?
Ben White: It’s 550 pesos (about US $26) per member per year. We are trying to keep our membership dues as low as we can so that we can reach out to everyone in the community and retain long-time members.
CB: What should people know about LCS? What is a misconception about it that we can clear up?
Ben White: For one thing, the LCS is not just for expats. Our new mission statement is to improve the quality of life for everyone living at Lakeside. We are focused on developing educational resources we can bring to bear to improve the quality of life for everyone who lives here.
CB: So the members of LCS can feel good that their membership is not only going to provide services for them but at the same time fulfilling the second mission as well, which is wonderful.
Is there anything I should ask that I did not or anything else you would like to add?
Ben White: Mexico is a country where the elders are revered and respected. Many people in the US who I know who are retired feel that they are sent to the side; like there is not a place for them. However, there’s a place here for everyone here.
If you are someone looking to expand your horizons, someone who is willing to live in a different way, want to see the world through different lenses, and look at a way you can explore a rich and vibrant culture, this place may be what you are looking for.
For further investigation:
Go here for the Lake Chapala Society website.
Go here to read questions and answers about Ajijic.
To read about our first impressions of Ajijic on our road trip, to to: Our First Few Days in Ajijic: “Not Too Much”
To see YouTubes on Ajijic, go to: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLsI-MrSFvt_OL10W73o5BOizw8bNInG8j