Connor Ciment, Fuller Center Bike Adventure trip leader, has had a roller-coaster of a last two years. In fact, little in his life has remained the same, other than a love for his bicycle.
After graduating college in May of 2015, Ciment joined the Fuller Center Bike Adventure. “I loved riding my bike, and I was looking for a way to do it across the country,” he said. “I took a leap of faith, and jumped on the ride right out of college.”
Once on the ride, Ciment learned the trip leader position would be open. Already having fallen in love with the mission, Ciment “got really attached to what The Fuller Center does, especially how it does it.” Shortly thereafter, he committed to a year of service with the Fuller Center.
As a graduate of The University of Alabama with a degree in mechanical engineering, the physical act of building houses was attractive to Ciment. Reflecting on past builds he has worked on in America, he fondly remembers “where the whole group worked together as one body on one single project, especially alongside the homeowners.”
It didn’t take long, however, for Ciment to develop an interest in participating in a Global Builders trip internationally. Appropriately enough, it was a fellow cyclist that initiated his dream becoming a reality.
“Mike Oliphant, who rode the Natchez Trace with me in 2016, reached out to ask if I wanted to co-lead a Global Builders trip with him. I jumped at the chance.” After working out the details, the duo traveled to Pigñon, Haiti, last month
With the trip in the rear-view mirror, Ciment is even more deeply invested in The Fuller Center than he was before.
Ciment is quick to address the profound effect of cultural barriers on the experience: “Building in the US, it’s like having home-field advantage; you speak the language, you understand the culture. In Haiti, I didn’t speak the language, and I wasn’t necessarily aware of the full context of culture around me.”
Through the week, however, Ciment was impressed by the connections he and the team were able to form despite the barriers between them. “Through working side-by-side with somebody, you start to get to know them regardless of language and regardless of that cultural barrier. By the third day, there’s a certain silent ballet going on, you know each other well enough to work seamlessly without ever having spoken a sentence.”
Ciment reflects on the moment he began to integrate into the community around him. “Suez, a Haitian mason, was laying blocks, and he called for me to pick up a block for him. Instead of placing it for me, he let me place it in the mortar myself. It was kind of an extra step towards inviting me into a bigger portion of the building process, which was a really cool level of comfort that we reached together. Again, we still hadn’t spoken.”
“Through working side-by-side with somebody, you start to get to know them regardless of language and regardless of that cultural barrier.” — Connor Ciment
When asked if his week in Haiti affected how he saw the Fuller Center as a whole, Ciment didn’t hesitate. “Absolutely. You witness the dramatic impact you can have on a family’s life. It really brings me a lot of gratitude that I can be a part of such an organization.
“It also brings new meaning to the Bike Adventure, which is raising a lot of money. With this experience I can see infinitely more tangibly how impactful the fundraising is for folks in need, all over the world.”
Ciment left Haiti deeply impressed by the strong local Fuller Center leadership. “Gerald is doing an amazing job, and I am extremely proud to be working alongside him as his efforts go far beyond housing, most directly including education. The school that he is the principal for is churning out young leaders who will be the generation that continues to lift up Pigñon and lift up Haiti and bring it to be the healthy and prosperous country that it can be.”
Seven years ago, a devastating 7.0-magnitude struck Haiti, which already had long been the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Tens of thousands died, and at least 200,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
In its wake, hundreds of millions of dollars from caring individuals and concerned groups flowed in to nonprofits aiming to help Haitians in their time of great need. Unfortunately, so much well-meaning aid was either wasted or misused. In the vast majority of those cases, it was not the result of corruption but of not understanding how to help.
However, amid all the problems were success stories. A small, grass-roots Christian nonprofit — The Fuller Center for Housing — provided some of the most visible examples of effective, enlightened charity … in the form of 188 simple, decent, safe homes built in partnership with Haitians.
Partnership is the key word in that last sentence. While many U.S.-based nonprofits parachuted into the country and tried to dictate every movement, The Fuller Center relied on the same approach that has proved so effective in communities across the United States and in 20 countries around the world — supporting local leaders on the ground. In a country like Haiti where there is a long history of troublesome, ineffective government, it’s especially important to have partners on the ground who can navigate such complicated territory.
Photos from Nepal, Haiti, Nicaragua, Thailand and Peru are among the 17 finalists in the Fuller Center Global Builders’ annual photo contest, and contest organizers would like your help in selecting the winner. The final two will be revealed on Friday, December 16 for the deciding round of voting.
After a massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in January of 2010, killing more than 200,000 people and destroying about the same amount of homes, the outpouring of support for Haitians was impressive.
Millions of Americans, Canadians and others took to their smart phones and computers or whipped out their checkbooks and gave generously. More than $9.5 billion was raised for Haiti in the two years following the quake. The vast majority went to charities with a lot of name recognition and nonprofits with already sizeable budgets and bureaucracies.
But there was a problem: Haiti was and still is a very difficult place to work. The typical major nonprofit relief style of parachuting into a disaster zone and managing the effort rarely worked. And when it came time to rebuild homes, most Haitian families instead found themselves in tents or flimsy transitional shelters. As they waited for permanent, safe homes, the spotlight faded from Haiti and attention turned to other disasters. Tents and temporary shelters became all too permanent.
With just 12 percent of the $9.5 billion originally pledged for Haiti, The Fuller Center could have partnered with Haitian families to rebuild every single home destroyed by the quake.
Meanwhile, a small, grass-roots Christian housing ministry was called to help Haitians build permanent homes. While less than $1 million of that $9.5 billion was directed to The Fuller Center for Housing, the nonprofit founded by Millard and Linda Fuller in 2005 nevertheless began to set the standard for nonprofit work in Haiti. Since 2010, The Fuller Center has built more than 185 permanent homes. To put that impact in perspective, with just 12 percent of the $9.5 billion originally pledged for Haiti, The Fuller Center could have partnered with Haitian families to rebuild every single home destroyed by the quake.
Too many tents and “transitional” houses would become permanent in Haiti in the years following the 2010 quake.
Years after The Fuller Center began working in the country, stories began to surface about millions of dollars meant to help Haiti instead being wasted, misused or utterly squandered. Headlines like “How the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars for Haiti and built six houses” began to show up in people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. (The Fuller Center, by the way, built those six houses with a grant from the Red Cross. Unfortunately, it was the only Red Cross grant offered to The Fuller Center.)
How did The Fuller Center succeed where others failed? Well, myriad reasons.
One, The Fuller Center practices “enlightened charity” in which families are full partners in the building process — whether that’s in Haiti, Nepal or here in the United States. Long before the quake hit Haiti, decades of well-meaning handouts created a culture of dependency in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. That culture of dependency was exacerbated by many relief efforts following the quake. It’s not easy to change such a mind-set in one person, and it’s even tougher to change the mind-sets of millions.
Few were interested in The Fuller Center’s partnership approach at first. A few families accepted the offer of a hand-up to build east of Port-au-Prince in Croix des Bouquets and west of the capital near Gressier. Slowly but surely, people began to notice that Fuller Center partner families were empowered, while those waiting around for handouts remained diminished.
Another major factor in The Fuller Center’s success internationally — and particularly in Haiti — is that the ministry works through local partners who already have an established presence on the ground. These local leaders are best equipped to work with third world government and deal with cultural nuances and often complex or vague regulatory environments.
One of those partners in Haiti was Grace International, which recognized the impact The Fuller Center was having house by house. They sought to concentrate that kind of impact in a single location. What resulted was a 56-home community called Lambi Village, a place where children’s laughter fills the tropical air and families have carved out a sustainable, healthy way of life in the countryside.
Haiti’s Lambi Village is home to 56 Fuller Center partner families.
The community was completed in 2014 thanks to the hard work of Haitian locals, teams of Fuller Center Global Builders volunteers and financial support of private donors and groups like the United Church of Christ, which, to date, has funded the construction of 32 Fuller Center homes in Haiti.
That success only planted more seeds of hope in Haiti, and The Fuller Center’s work has continued to grow. Since Lambi was completed, a more traditional Fuller Center partner formed in the northern town of Pignon, which remains busy hosting Global Builders volunteers and has built more than 25 beautiful new homes.
Fuller Center home in Pignon, Haiti.
Yet another reason The Fuller Center’s work remains a success in Haiti is that unlike many larger nonprofits, the housing ministry works to help families build healthy lives outside of large third-world cities and slums. Those ugly images of flimsy shacks, filthy streets and sad faces from Port-au-Prince are opposite of what our volunteers witness in the countryside. Haiti is a beautiful country of happy families. You just have to look — and work — in the right places.
And while The Fuller Center utilizes volunteer labor (mostly from the United States), it also provides employment for Haitian laborers, especially masons. The volunteer teams work alongside locals instead of taking work from them. In fact, they support many other professions, including cooks, drivers and hotel staffs.
Fuller Center Global Builders volunteers work alongside local laborers.
I would like to be optimistic and believe that in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, more people will search out the effective, grass-roots nonprofits like The Fuller Center who are making a direct, tangible impact in Haiti. But I fear there will be a repeat of massive amounts of well-meaning charitable gifts being sent down the usual, familiar paths. Again, millions likely will be squandered.
The Fuller Center intends to expand its work in Haiti yet again in the wake of Matthew as the ministry is in active discussions with individuals and organizations planning to help residents in the Les Cayes/Port Salut area, which was among the regions hardest-hit by the recent hurricane. With your support, The Fuller Center will have a direct, permanent impact for more Haitian families and show other organizations how to get the job done right. Extend a hand-up that empowers families and lights a beacon of hope for a country desperately in need of it.
As Hurricane Matthew makes landfall in Haiti today, we here at the Fuller Center pray for the safety and health of the nation. The category 4 storm is expected to bring nearly two feet of rain to the nation, with winds up to 145 miles per hour.
Having long been the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti’s substandard construction industry often cannot stand up to natural disasters, resulting in collapsed buildings.
Following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Fuller Center worked to build over 150 homes in Lambi and Croix-des-Bouquets. Currently, the Fuller Center works in the rural town of Pignon in northern Haiti.
“Our prayers are with the people of Haiti. The many houses we’ve built there make us especially aware of the hardship that is so much a fact of life in that troubled land. Our hope is that the additional difficulties the storm might bring are minor and that the island can quickly recover,” says Fuller Center president David Snell of the nation’s troubles.
Reasonable people — and sometimes unreasonable people — can disagree on the issue of illegal immigration to the United States. Get 20 folks in a room, and you might get 20 opinions on the issue. It’s been a wedge issue in American political campaigns for decades, perhaps never more than it’s been this year.
Many Latin American families — and sometimes children traveling alone or with smugglers — face an arduous journey if they choose to leave their homeland and try to start a new life in the United States. We can all agree that this is very difficult decision to make.
We also can agree that the vast, vast majority of Latin American immigrants are hard-working folks. They often work long hours for low pay (sometimes under-the-table cash less than minimum wage) — and perform jobs that few Americans would want. I’ve witnessed an awful lot of Spanish-speaking guys working through the South Georgia heat in the construction of my new home this summer. I don’t know much Spanish, but I know what it means when a brick layer wipes his brow and tells me it’s “muy caliente.” I’m happy to offer them plenty of cold agua.
Rightly or wrongly, for decades the primary point of discussion has been about Hispanics and those south of our border. I’ve yet to hear anyone complain about Swedes infiltrating America — at least not since “Dancing Queen” was a big hit.
What Americans can’t seem to agree on is what to do about it. Some say let everyone come as they wish. Others want to build a wall and deport unauthorized immigrants. Most come at the issue from somewhere between the two extremes.
Emotions run deep and voices run loud on the issue, and perhaps that’s why I’ve never heard anyone talk about stemming the tide of illegal immigration at its source — poor families’ homes and communities. Or, perhaps I’ve never heard anyone talk about it because it hasn’t been brought up enough, if at all. Either way, I’m bringing it up today.
A typical shack in Nuevo Cuscátlan, El Salvador
If we could help Latin American families and communities develop better places to live in the first place, isn’t it likely they wouldn’t have much interest in sneaking into the United States? Isn’t it likely that these families would much prefer to stay home if possible?
And, yes, before I go further, I realize there are immigration concerns beyond Latin America. However, rightly or wrongly, for decades the primary point of discussion has been about Hispanics and those south of our border. I’ve yet to hear anyone complain about Swedes infiltrating America — at least not since “Dancing Queen” was a big hit.
The Fuller Center for Housing builds simple, decent homes in partnership with families in 20 countries around the world. Several of our international building partners are in Latin America — including in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti, Bolivia and Peru. If your home is safe, your children are happy and your community is thriving, why would you bother immigrating to another country — legally or illegally? I can pretty much guarantee that no one has left the security of their Fuller Center home to sneak into the United States.
Yasmina, in front of her Fuller Center home in Las Peñitas, Nicaragua
Fuller Center covenant partners — both here in the United States and internationally — build modest homes. Internationally, these homes generally cost about $5,000 to $6,000 each. They’re safe and structurally sound, but most Americans could not imagine living in such simple accommodations. To a family that has been living in a shack made of tin and plastic, these might as well be mansions.
It’s hard to plant the seeds for a healthy community in the pavement of slums. But we see rural communities thrive when basic housing needs are met.
The Fuller Center’s international building also usually is done outside the big cities and slums. We find that rural areas may have the same levels of poverty and terrible living conditions as the urban slums, but there is more opportunity to acquire land and facilitate healthier, more sustainable living conditions. It’s hard to plant the seeds for a healthy community in the pavement of slums. But we see rural communities thrive when basic housing needs are met. Strong families are the foundation stones for a healthy community — and it is in the home that families grow and are nurtured. That’s where success begins.
Fuller Center volunteers and local laborers work together in Pignon, Haiti.
We not only work with local building partners on the ground in these countries, but we work with agencies here in the United States to help raise funds and acquire volunteers to work through our Global Builders program. From time to time, we’ve run into agencies who aren’t interested in working outside the spotlight of overcrowded cities like Port-au-Prince or Managua. They want to make sure their efforts are seen. We want to make sure our efforts are worthwhile, and that our supporters’ generosity is maximized.
We also run into partners here in the U.S. who recognize that our approach to building healthier communities makes good sense. Most recently, New Story Charity has teamed up with us to fund two communities in El Salvador and another in Bolivia, where the building is centered around getting families out of the mud huts that allow Chagas to fester and spread. The United Church of Christ has funded dozens of homes in Haiti and Nepal. And other groups from small like-minded nonprofits to individual churches have stepped forward to make a real difference with us.
Not only is building a home a life-changing experience for the partner families, but it also is the experience of a lifetime for our Global Builders volunteers. The use of volunteer labor allows us to keep house costs as low as possible, and the volunteers’ fees help pay for the homes. However, they do not take jobs away from the local community. In fact, our volunteers work alongside skilled masons and builders while also supporting jobs of drivers, local artisans and the staffs of hotels and restaurants. And, while volunteer teams come sporadically, the work of local covenant partners continues throughout the year.
Happy homeowners in Nuevo Cuscátlan, El Salvador
Lastly, and perhaps best of all, The Fuller Center provides a hand-up instead of a handout. For many charities, that phrase might be cliché. But it is the very essence of how The Fuller Center works. Families contribute sweat equity in the building of their homes and repay the costs of materials over time, on terms they can afford, with no interest charged and no profit made. Those payments go into a local fund to help others in their community get that same hand-up.
Instead of the usual charitable approach of “look what we’ve done for you,” we allow partner families to retain their pride and see what we’ve done together.
When we first began working in Haiti, we saw that decades of well-meaning handouts from U.S. groups had created and/or exacerbated a culture of dependency in which too many Haitians simply waited for help from Americans. But, given the chance to build a community and a new life for themselves outside Port-au-Prince in the beautiful countryside around Gressier (near the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake), Haitian families seized the opportunity. The empowerment was contagious, and the 56-home Lambi community they built stands out as a sustainable example of how best to help Haitians thrive, not just survive.
The Fuller Center’s Lambi Community, Haiti
Our hand-up approach to partnering with families instead of doling out handouts means that our partner families are not charity cases. In fact, by repaying the costs of materials to help others get the same help, they become givers themselves. Instead of the usual charitable approach of “look what we’ve done for you,” we allow partner families to retain their pride and see what we’ve done together.
On my trips to the little fishing village of Las Peñitas, Nicaragua, I’ve been struck by how hard-working these families are. It doesn’t require much of a hand-up to make a difference in their lives. They’ll do the heavy lifting … literally. I’ll never forget the images of mothers lifting overfilled buckets of mortar and handing them to 10-year-old boys laying block high upon a wall. The determination in the eyes of parents and children building a new home is permanently etched into my memory.
So, in the end, we can loudly shout and endlessly debate whether or not it’s worth it to build a wall. But when it comes to building a home, there’s no debate — it’s clearly the best approach.
Four freshman students from Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in Massachusetts joined two of their language teachers on a Fuller Center Global Builders trip to Pignon, Haiti, last month. They say they came away with a different perspective of the country than most Americans possess.
“I don’t think people here in the United States understand the natural beauty,” 15-year-old Alexis DeNisi told The Dennis Register of working in the countryside, well north of the crowded capital of Port-au-Prince. “It’s beautiful. It has its flaws, but at the same time you want to be there forever.”
While there, the students had many new experiences — from building a home and trying new foods and from washing clothes by hand to catching rides on motorcycles.