SPECIAL REPORT: Families of Las Peñitas, Nicaragua, capture volunteers’ hearts

As the bus full of Fuller Center for Housing Global Builders volunteers crawls uphill along rocky, washed-out dirt paths, it appears to the travelers that they have entered a community of absolute misery.

Instead of solid houses, families live in shacks with rotting wood, tin and even plastic for walls. Women labor away washing clothes and dishes outside as pigs and chickens walk around them. The heat is intense, even in January.

Then the volunteers notice strands of energetic Latin music emanating from shacks. It soon mixes with giggles of little girls and laughs of little boys as they ride bikes, strike at pinatas and chase each other through dusty yards and streets. Hard-working men and women greet the volunteers with smiles, waves and a hearty “Hola!” Sturdy, safe Fuller Center homes built by residents and Global Builders volunteers who came before them become visible in a few spots.

This is the fishing village of Las Peñitas, Nicaragua. It is a study in contrasts as people living in extreme poverty are nevertheless joyous, hopeful and friendly; the glut of ugly shacks is a short walk from one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the planet; and the people whose poverty has been exacerbated by a history of government handouts are seizing the opportunity to build safe, decent homes in partnership with The Fuller Center and repay the costs on terms they can afford through zero-percent-interest loans.

“What we’re finding with many of these families in Nicaragua is that they work,” said Fuller Center President David Snell, who returned a couple weeks ago from a Fuller Center Global Builders trip to Las Peñitas along with several members of The Fuller Center’s international Board of Directors and a few other volunteers. “They don’t mind work. And they want to work to improve their lives. So the whole notion of sweat equity and paying for their homes isn’t difficult for them to take on.”

Not only are they full participants in the building process, but their payments go into a Fund for Humanity to help their local neighbors have the same opportunity — just as Fuller Center homeowner partners do across the United States and around the world. Their local neighbors are seizing this opportunity, having built more than 30 Fuller Center homes since the Fuller Center for Housing of Leon, Nicaragua, formed just two years ago — the vast majority built in the past 12 months as the pace accelerates.

“The work that we’re able to do with volunteers around the world and the work that we do right here within the country is going to allow this to continue to grow,” said Danilo Gutierrez Garcia, director of local operations, who added that nearby communities are taking notice. “We’re having a lot of leaders from other communities coming to us now that they see what is happening, asking what they can do to have a Fuller Center in their town.”

The impact is even clearer when you speak to Fuller Center homeowner partners like Petrona, who lives in a safe, new home with her husband, three children, three grandchildren and a niece. She works as a cook at a local restaurant and at Hotel Suyapa Beach Resort, which houses Fuller Center Global Builders teams during their work weeks.

“I always wanted to have a house with walls because on Mother’s Day my daughters would give me pictures, but I didn’t have any place to hang them because the house was made of sticks,” she said through an interpreter. “Now, I can hang them up. When they gave me the keys to the house, I couldn’t speak. I thought I would die without ever having a house with walls.”

“We have a house with walls and a door and a floor,” said Cyndi, who lives in the very first Fuller Center house built in Las Peñitas with her parents and three brothers. “We have a garden. We are very happy here.”

“It makes a big difference to have solid walls and a solid roof and it’s very expensive to do,” said homeowner partner Jose, who has a wife and four daughters. “Thank you for all of the help you’ve given us and keep on helping because there are many families who need a helping hand.”

Walls, roofs, floors and doors may be afterthoughts for most first-world families, but they are of primary concern to those living in shacks. While building such decent homes may seem expensive to Jose and others living day to day in the third world, Fuller Center homes in Nicaragua cost an average of only $3,800-$4,000. That means American donors are capable of helping many more families know the joy of owning a simple, decent, safe home.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Sandrine Veziens, a native of France who now runs the Barca de Oro hotel and restaurant in Las Peñitas. “It changes their lives. So many people would like to be part of the project. It’s absolutely basic for a family. You really change people’s lives. I can sense it and see it.”


Building homes and strengthening community bonds

The local leadership in Nicaragua came up with a unique plan to make the building of each home a community effort: Instead of partnering with one family at a time, they select 15 partner families as a group. Those families go through training and classes together and commit to perform sweat equity hours and repay the costs of construction on terms they can afford, as do all Fuller Center homeowners.

What makes the program unique in Las Peñitas is that after all 15 families have completed classes, the order in which their homes will be built is determined by a lottery. During construction of one family’s home, the other families from the group pitch in to help.

“It’s really neat to see the way the families work together,” Fuller Center board member Allon LeFever said. “They care for one another. And if one of them has a problem, they step in. It’s just a neat thing to see. It builds community, which is part of what we do besides building houses.”

“It gives a real sense of community to that group,” Snell said. “It also encourages participation; and there’s a little bit of peer pressure.”

“God has called us to love our neighbor,” noted board member Bob Abel. “If they are doing that, and 15 families band together to help one another build their homes and move along that Fuller Center process, what better way to show love of neighbor? They’re doing it among themselves. They’re not just waiting for us to come in and help them. It’s a partnership in the true sense of the word, and that’s what The Fuller Center is all about.”

The Fuller Center also is about making families full partners in the building process, not recipients of handouts. It is especially important to Fuller Center volunteers that they build alongside the families as they become co-workers with families instead of case workers.

“The homeowners are working side-by-side with us, and they have skills,” said John Schaub, chairman of the Board of Directors. “Most of them have built something before.”

“I’ve been more than impressed by the people who are working with us,” board member Edgar Stoesz added. “Somebody on our crew said they are outworking us, and another guy said, ‘Two to one!’ Surely, that was true. They are well-motivated people who deserve better than they’ve got. It’s good to see them end up with some better shelter for their livelihood.”

“I’m very excited because all of the family members are here today — a mom, dad and four teenage children,” Tamara Danel said. “And most of them have been working alongside us all day, plus some of their neighbors and friends and Fuller Center homeowners in this community.”


Fuller Center Global Builders provide crucial boost

Anywhere The Fuller Center sends Global Builders teams, volunteers not only provide valuable labor but also funds to purchase building materials. Nicaragua has quickly become a favorite Global Builders destination. In fact, 11 more Global Builders teams already are scheduled to work in Las Peñitas in 2015 with more trips likely to be planned this year.

“I enjoy having them here,” said local construction director Jose Santos, whose calming presence and decent English skills make him a valuable resource even beyond his experience and degree in civil engineering. “I like teaching them our system. I want them to have a good feeling about their time in Nicaragua.”

“When people ask me, I tell them that people came from abroad and helped me have this gift,” said Jazmina, Cyndi’s mother, as she took a break from her work of cleaning fish brought in by the village’s many fishermen — she is paid in fish, some of which she sells and some she uses to feed her family. “It’s a great blessing to my children. They’ve always wanted to have a place where they can feel safe and secure.”

The Rev. Barry Chance, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Hammond, La., readily admits that while he may be an eager volunteer, he hardly brings expertise in construction to the village’s efforts. But the villagers enthusiastically embrace each and every volunteer who comes their way, whether they are a novice builder or a skilled mason.

“The people of Las Peñitas have been so welcoming to us,” he said. “We don’t have any practical skills. They’ve been teaching us how to build these houses, and they’ve been patient with us and appreciative that we’ve traveled all this distance to be together. We’ve gotten to know this family here. It’s a wonderful family. Everybody has pitched in and worked together, and we’re going to be really sad to leave them.”

“I want to thank the work team that’s come to help,” said Guillermo, a homeowner partner who is battling Parkinson’s Disease. “They leave their family, come and work hard and leave some of their soul here with us. We all woke up a little bit tired this morning, but I’m going to keep going because I have to be part of the process. The fact that I’m getting a new home creates opportunities for me. I’m going to have a new home where I can start a new life. The love that you have to give matches the love that we have to receive. And the things that we receive, we are going to take care of because we know that they came from your sacrifice.”

The determination of the villagers and their joyous spirit certainly has become a magnet for Global Builders volunteers, but the spectacular scenery and setting along the Pacific Coast does not hurt when it comes to attracting helpers from America, especially those shaking off the chill of winter.

“I don’t know a place that’s lovelier,” said Snell, who has traveled the world far and wide to help families have simple, decent housing. “There’s a lot of variety, a great beach and surfing. Then there’s rocks and swells. It’s just lovely. And then all along the beach, there’s little inns and surf shops. It’s like going back in time, like going back into the fifties.”

“The Pacific Ocean is beautiful,” Danel added. “The beach is great. It’s full of volcanic sand and very fun to walk on early in the morning or late in the evening. It’s just a very rural Central American setting with lots of people in need.”


Joy and happiness is contagious

Whether families are struggling to get by in flimsy shacks or are now safe from the elements — including earthquakes — in new Fuller Center homes, one thing remains the same: They are happy. It is impossible for visitors not to be transformed by simply being in the presence of the families of Las Peñitas.

“The families we’re working with in Nicaragua are really a lovely bunch of people,” Snell said. “The thing that’s remarkable — and people keep commenting on it — is how happy people are despite the fact that they have so little.”

Abel said the fact that they are so happy may say more about Americans than Nicaraguans.

“I think it says more about us,” he said. “They know what they have, they know who they are, and they’re happy. They live in dirt streets and perhaps dirt floors, but they’re clean, neat and presentable. They care about their appearance. They’re just joyous. They know God, and they know what life is all about. … People could pay a lot of money to take a vacation to any country and never feel the culture and the life of people in ordinary Nicaragua like we have this week. It’s just amazing.”

“These folks are probably some of the friendliest folks I’ve ever met in my life,” volunteer Jim Creel said. “They’re real appreciative of everything you do for them. It just needs to be continued and get other people down here interested in doing things for themselves and getting a better life for themselves.”

Volunteer Norman Race said he was going back to his home in Americus, Ga., with not just a fondness for the residents of Las Peñitas but also great optimism for the families’ future living conditions.

“I think there’s tremendous hope,” Race said. “We’re building homes that are substantial with solid walls, good floors and good roofs to protect people from the weather. Their health will definitely improve, and it will be a better way of life for people here.”

“This is a great community to work in,” Danel said. “We definitely need more volunteers to come down here and experience this. The people have been very nice and welcoming, so I’m glad we have a great opportunity to come down here and serve. It really helps us put our own first-world problems in better perspective after seeing how these folks live.”

Back at a much cooler Fuller Center headquarters in Americus, Ga., Snell reflected upon the future of work in Nicaragua and said the covenant partner is in good hands with its passionate local leadership.

“The organization there is good,” he said. “We have a good group of leaders there pulling things together. The work sites were well-prepared, and the materials were staged, so it was very smooth.”

He added that he expects Nicaragua to get an ever-increasing stream of volunteers in the years to come.

“Nicaragua’s a great place to visit,” he said. “It’s not that far. It’s probably the safest place to visit in Central America. … The food was good. They take great care of you. And it’s close enough that it’s not tremendously expensive and is easy to get to. It’s a good spot to spend some time.”

View our photo galleries from Nicaragua.



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