(Photo: Fuller Center for Housing Global Builders Coordinator Maegan Pierce, Registrar Stacey Goolsby, Bob and Leslie Bell and Director of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola during the Bells’ visit to Fuller Center headquarters in Americus on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017)
Bob and Leslie Bell ought to be the most famous folks from the small, coastal hamlet of Homer, Alaska — also known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World” and “the end of the road” as the last stop on Alaska’s Sterling Highway.
Instead, that recognition probably goes to their neighbors, the Hillstrand family from The Discovery Channel reality TV show “Deadliest Catch” or to singer Jewel Kilcher (“Who Will Save Your Soul,” “You Were Meant for Me”), who rose to instant stardom in 1995 with her album “Pieces of You,” still one of the best-selling debut albums of all time, having gone 12-times platinum.
The Bells, though, have been volunteering in the affordable housing ministry for more than 20 years and have visited 75 countries and led 48 international volunteer build trips. These two former teachers, though, are more interested in service than stardom and in faith-building more than fame-building.
“We’ve got too many things to do to watch TV,” Bob said with a chuckle during a visit to The Fuller Center for Housing’s international headquarters in Americus, Georgia, on Thursday. “I’ve got more important things to do.”
“We don’t even have TV, for one,” added Leslie, who taught Jewel in middle school.
Among the important things the Bells have to do is to plan next month’s first-ever Fuller Center Global Builders trip to Papua New Guinea, one of this affordable housing ministry’s newest and most exotic international covenant partners. Fortunately, the Bells not only have loads of experience leading international volunteer trips with Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center, but also the 75 countries they have visited includes previous visits to Papua New Guinea. In fact, years ago they trained Petrus Martin, who now serves as the coordinator for The Fuller Center’s operations in Papua New Guinea.
“Martin is an intense person in that he is so committed to his community as a whole,” Leslie said. “He is going to make this a community that thrives. He’s very Christian, very compassionate, and he has a way of motivating other people in the community. He’s not a preacher, but he is like a New Guinea version of Millard Fuller. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and he doesn’t think anything is impossible.”
The Bells will be leading a team of at least 16 volunteers on next month’s trip to build a home in partnership with the Korong family in the Panapai Village off Kavieng District in New Ireland Province. Sam, a woodworker and furniture maker, and Harriet, who sells produce and baked goods, have longed for a decent home in which to raise their daughters since their former house made of untreated logs and bamboo recently had to be torn down.
Bob and Leslie both said that based upon their previous trips to Papua New Guinea and the motivation provided by Martin they know the Korong family and others in the community will be heavily involved in working alongside Fuller Center volunteers.
“If you just mention anything, it will be done,” Leslie said. “They just jump right to it. They love to teach other people. They love to learn. Interaction is like in their DNA. They don’t stand back or watch. They’re not bystanders. They are a people that are involved in what they are doing. Everybody is involved. It’s not pushed onto them — it’s just what they do.”
Venturing to far-away places like Papua New Guinea may seem inconceivable to people used to the modern conveniences of bustling American cities with a Starbucks seemingly on every corner, but 50 years of Alaskan living on the shores of Kachemak Bay have the Bells prepared to handle all the ups and downs that come with international volunteering in impoverished villages.
“To live in Alaska, you have to be pretty independent,” Bob said. “There’s a lot of things you have to be able to overcome, so you’re used to problem-solving. You don’t wait for somebody else to figure it out for you. I think a lot of that transfers to going to other countries. If you’re in another country, you need to figure things out. And if you’re standing back and waiting for somebody to figure it out for you, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”
“To live in Alaska, you have to be pretty independent. There’s a lot of things you have to be able to overcome, so you’re used to problem-solving. You don’t wait for somebody else to figure it out for you.” — Bob Bell
One thing they have figured out, time and time again, is that these trips are part of a spiritual journey — their own and the volunteers who join them on these missions, something Leslie said she and Bob learned directly from Millard Fuller, who met the Bells while speaking to churches in Alaska and then encouraged them to come to Americus for a volunteer stint, where their love of international service was nurtured and flourished.
Leslie said that the volunteers on this trip are not just fulfilling needs in a community but are nourishing their own spiritual needs, adding that morning devotions before each work day are a crucial component of their trips. They also believe that by planning and organizing such trips that they are merely opening doors for other service-minded people to walk through.
“This one trip is part of their spiritual growth — it’s not a one-shot, been there, done that, got the t-shirt kind of thing,” Leslie said. “Our morning devotions is a really important time because that’s where we connect, where we share not just things that inspire us but share our questions, share why we’re doing what we’re doing and what draws us here. … I know that 100 percent of the people who go on our trips are going because of something that they need to grow and understand why they do what they do. If you give them an opportunity to learn that, it helps the teams be successful.”
“We want their experiences to be personal,” she added. “We’re not there to make their experience our experience. We want them to have the opportunity to build a relationship with the homeowner or be one-on-one with the community’s kids so that when they leave, it’s their place. .. It’s about setting up opportunities for them to grow and learn on their own.”