Michael Bonderer both shatters molds and sets the bar. He never holds back, whether it’s serving his fellow man or speaking his mind. With a mix of inspiration, perspiration and consternation, he has turned the El Salvadoran community of San Luis Talpa into a shining example of transformation.
“I think some don’t like me,” said Bonderer, The Fuller Center’s director of operations in El Salvador. “But some do. It’s a mixed bag.”
Perhaps. But when it comes to Michael Bonderer, those who’ve worked with him are in unanimous agreement about him on two fronts: He’s a character, and he’s a character who gets things done.
“He’s a character, but a character in a good way,” said Allen Slabaugh, the director of The Fuller Center’s Student Builders and Bicycle Adventure, who made his first trip outside the United States in January when he built homes on a church trip to San Luis Talpa. “He’ll tell you like it is, but he really wants the best for people. He really cares about that little community.”
“You don’t have to know anything about anything to change the world. The people who just show up are the game-changers. That’s what we need: People ready and willing to serve, who will just show up.” — Michael Bonderer
Caring about the community means more than just building houses. Bonderer is the glue in El Salvador between The Fuller Center for Housing and its Homes from the Heart partner in El Salvador. Working with the groups and other partners, he has managed to build homes, set up a daycare, bring in utilities and help attract a project called Many Miracles that helps train women to sew for a living.
Yet, it’s doubtful that the women can sew a tapestry nearly as colorful as a few words from Bonderer.
‘ONE HECK OF A GUY’
Among those who know Bonderer very well is Lindsay Long. The 23-year-old graduated from the University of Cincinnati in June with a bachelor’s degree in biology. During her undergraduate years, she was heavily involved with Serve Beyond Cincinnati, a service group that has sent many college-aged volunteers The Fuller Center’s way.
Long, who served as president of the campus group last year, led a dozen students on a work trip to El Salvador a few years ago and has stayed in contact with Bonderer ever since. After graduation, she wanted to do something longer than a weeklong service trip, and Bonderer suggested she come intern with him. She did just that for the last five months of 2011. She will return to school soon to work on her master’s degree but treasures the time she took away from school to work with Bonderer.
“Michael is one heck of a guy,” Long said. “He has character — I will say that. He’s passionate about the mission, and I don’t think he ever loses sight of why he’s there. The whole point is to give people better housing. People who are in poverty don’t want to be there, and he’s there to help them. He never loses sight of that.”
“One of the things I really appreciate about what Mike has been doing there is he’s building houses, but he’s also addressing other community needs with the daycare, working so hard to get electrical power and helping provide jobs for people down there,” said Ryan Iafigliola, The Fuller Center’s Director of International Field Operations, who recently returned from a Central America swing, on which he visited San Luis Talpa for the first time. “He’s really looking at it as building a community, rather than a certain number of houses.
“He doesn’t mind who gets the credit,” Iafigliola added. “When I was down there, in his own words he said, ‘When I die, I hope people don’t say, “He built X number of houses.” I hope they say, “He left behind wonderful communities.” ‘ And that’s just his approach. He’s just down there plugging away and taking care of every aspect he can and trying to get other partners involved.”
Bonderer once had no intention of becoming a builder of decent communities in Central America. Around the turn of the millennium, when he was in the elevator business in Kansas City, his life took a turn.
“I was sick,” the Marine Corps veteran said. “I had an illness, and I became a victim of Google. I kept looking up my condition, and it looked so bad that I figured I’d better do something good before I croaked.”
Thinking he didn’t have long before he “croaked,” he packed up his truck and tools (and his dog) and drove from Kansas City to Guatemala in 2001.
“The experience of trying to get a truck loaded with equipment into Mexico is a book in and of itself,” Bonderer said with a laugh. “Fortunately, we knew a Catholic priest who knew who to bribe to get through to Mexico.”
While in Central America, something else happened to further change the course of his life.
“I met Millard Fuller,” Bonderer said of the founder of The Fuller Center for Housing. “He was totally different from me, but he was fascinating to me.”
Fuller would go on to describe Bonderer in much the same way as others: “He is quite the character.”
‘SAINT AND SINNER’
Others who find Bonderer “quite the character” include Ronnie McBrayer, an author, speaker and pastor who writes the nationally syndicated “Keeping the Faith” newspaper column. McBrayer wrote about Bonderer in his newspaper column in April of 2011:
I found Michael to be more than just a colorful character. He is the stunning paradox of saint and sinner. At once, he is a nicotine-addicted, four-letter-word-dropping, endless-coffee-drinking, recovering alcoholic; and he is a wise sage, a deeply committed follower of Jesus, a spiritual practitioner who lives to put roofs over the heads of the poor and forgotten.
Michael is aged, fragile and weak, and yet after cancer, a heart attack, a quadruple-bypass surgery, a stroke and two packs a day, he’s still not dead. He doesn’t even feel bad! And in true enigmatic form, he says he has very little faith, sometimes not at all; yet the trajectory of his life says otherwise.
McBrayer used the colorful Bonderer to call people of faith into service. Though a gifted writer himself, McBrayer used Bonderer’s own words to hammer home his message.
After a week with him in Central America mixing concrete and building houses, I asked him what his work there needed, outside of money, to keep building homes. He flicked ashes into a coconut ashtray and passionately replied, “People in the church feel like they need permission to do anything good, or they feel they need to be experts.
“But you don’t have to know anything about anything to change the world. The people who just show up are the game-changers. That’s what we need: People ready and willing to serve, who will just show up.”
POPULAR DESTINATION FOR MANY REASONS
But Bonderer’s ability to get things done is not the only reason El Salvador is one of the most popular stops for Fuller Center volunteer teams. They also come for the exotic scenery, the beachside lodging, and exciting excursions such as zooming along zip-lines, hiking to the rim of a volcano and taking surfing lessons.
“It’s an easy trip to make, a short trip and a beautiful country to visit,” Iafigliola said. “You stay right on the beach in a beautiful beach house. It’s an affordable trip and just a fun country to be in.”
But it’s the people of El Salvador who not only drive Bonderer to keep working but also drive volunteers to return and encourage others to follow.
“You will be hard-pressed to find happier, more open-hearted people than those who live in the rural villages of El Salvador,” McBrayer said. “They welcome you in like an old friend.”
Long said the country truly became home during her internship there.
“The people were really receptive of me,” she said. “I wasn’t fluent in Spanish by any means, but people were very friendly, and I found it very easy to get along with everyone there. I felt like it was my community.”
“He wraps his deep spirituality and sense of mission in a very human package, making him not only an inspirational leader but also an approachable friend.” — David Snell, Fuller Center President
The steady flow of volunteer teams has had an impact beyond helping Bonderer and his team near completion of the project in San Luis Talpa and begin to look for new opportunities to help families; it also has kept fresh ideas and perspective coming.
“We’ve had a lot of real positive experiences with Serve Beyond Cincinnati and the other groups,” Bonderer said. “It’s been a real boost to me and my family. Having those young kids is truly special. It kinda keeps me in tune with what’s going on. They’ve been exposed to a lot of new ideas and ways of doing things, and that’s good for us.”
That’s a transaction that works both ways, Long said.
“I learned a lot from him while I was there,” she said of Bonderer. “He has such a unique perspective on ways to handle things or ways to work with groups. I think it’s always refreshing to see a unique perspective and see how someone else thinks. And especially with Michael, it’s a side I haven’t seen before.”
Bonderer’s summation of working with the young intern was more succinct: “Lindsay’s a trip.”
Others view Bonderer as “a trip,” and Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell believes his unique personality helps the El Salvador operation thrive and remain a drawing card for volunteers.
“There is a common misconception that charitable volunteers are a bunch of goody-two-shoes types who might not fit in well at a really fun event,” said Fuller Center President David Snell. “A stop at any Fuller Center project will show how faulty this perception is, especially if that project is in El Salvador. Our man on the ground there, Michael Bonderer, is a study in contrasts. He wraps his deep spirituality and sense of mission in a very human package, making him not only an inspirational leader but also an approachable friend.”
SETTING THE BAR
When Iafigliola visited San Luis Talpa, he did so with a group that plans to start a second Fuller Center covenant partner in El Salvador’s westernmost city, Ahuachapan. There, the plan has been to do what is known as “in-fill housing,” where the covenant partner would build houses in various locations where needy families own their own land.But when the group saw the community that Bonderer’s team, residents and Fuller Center volunteers have managed to build in San Luis Talpa, the plan became subject to change.
“It’s like their whole mind-set changed,” Iafigliola said. “They were inspired. They said, ‘This is what we need to do where we’re at!’ They’re still going to start with in-fill, but now they kind of have this new vision and goal for down there in their part of the country.”
San Luis Talpa is evidence that a community is much more than “X number of houses,” as Bonderer said. It takes the dedication of people like Bonderer and the steady stream of good-hearted volunteers.
“Anyone can join a mission team, get on a plane, spend a few American dollars or pour concrete,” McBrayer said. “Building a house is easy. But we don’t build houses. We build communities. And that is much more challenging work; it is work that requires an invest of time, heart and good will. But it is worth it.”
Bonderer sees his success in El Salvador in much simpler terms, through the eyes of a man who 11 years ago simply decided to do some good before he croaked.
“The bottom line is that I came down here and didn’t die,” he said.