A Feliz Navidad like never before for these 50 families in El Salvador

Photo: Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell (left) and Fuller Center Vice President of Communications Chris Johnson chat last week in Juayuá, El Salvador. This site of 50 new homes was an empty field this time last year.

A Feliz Navidad like never before for these 50 families in El Salvador

JUAYUÁ, El Salvador — The tin roof of a nearby shack rattled, trees swayed and dozens who support the work of The Fuller Center for Housing and its partners at The People Helping People Network along with partner families clung to their hats and protected their eyes from flying dust as a brisk wind greeted them on a hillside where they gathered to behold the scene of a remarkable transformation just below.

Stiff breezes are common some 4,000 feet above sea level in this highland area about 55 miles west of bustling San Salvador, but these winds felt different even to those who face them on a daily basis.

They were the winds of change — real, lasting, transformative change.

These same families and some of these same supporters had gathered one year earlier — in an empty field. Now, that empty field is full with 50 colorful new homes. The houses are nearly complete, and the families will move in by Christmas. The celebration, however, has already begun.

One year ago, this was an empty field,” Fuller Center for Housing David Snell noted. “There was nothing here. And, now, in less than a year’s time, all of this has happened. All of these houses have been built. It’s a miracle and it’s a Merry Christmas.”

The Juayuá one year ago

PHP board treasurer Rich Van Paris has been to El Salvador twice — last year and this year. A lot has changed in 12 months.

Last year was a wonderful experience in itself in that the residents that will be living in the houses came out to greet us and cheer us on,” Van Paris recalled. “They were looking forward to having shelter for their families as well as electricity and running water and sanitary systems.”

The residents had faith that the bold plan to build 50 homes so quickly would come true — even if the construction timetable seemed a bit overly optimistic.

I believe they believed us last year,” Van Paris said. “But, now, seeing the tangible evidence of it, they’re getting more excited and more excited because this is going to move them up from an economic standpoint to a different level that they’re going to adjust to as parents. But for the children, this will be the foundation on which to build.”

Gente Ayudando Gente (PHP in El Salvador) Program Director Marco Castro (left) talks with Phil Watkins about the remarkable progress in Juayuá.

Phil Watkins, an account manager with AES Indiana, who has been instrumental in helping communities (including this one) get access to safe electricity, also saw the open field last year. He was among those who thought turning that empty field into a thriving 50-home community in just one year seemed a little ambitious.

I don’t think I can say I foresaw it,” Watkins admits. “It was just a big open field. They were talking about bringing homes to families that were literally living in the woods around here. I thought, OK, in a few years they might have a nice place to live. When I found out that in less than a year, these houses were built and before Christmas, I was amazed. I seriously did not think it could happen that quick.”

Snell, however, regularly sees the reports coming in from Gente Ayudando Gente — the El Salvadoran partners of PHP and Fuller Center — and is impressed with their effectiveness but no longer surprised by the huge numbers that have made El Salvador The Fuller Center’s No. 2 international building partner behind only Armenia.

We have a construction team that can’t be beat,” Snell said. “They get the assignment, they go in and they do it. They’re the ones who make it possible. But the good Lord steps in and removes obstacles and helps us along the way.”

Marlon Ruiz, wife Carla and their daughter (left), and Rosana Ruiz and her children are among the families who will soon be moving into new homes.

Marlon Ruiz, wife Carla and daughter Ashley were among the partner families who expressed their gratitude and joy.

We’re very happy for this,” Marlon said through an interpreter. “We live about a kilometer away, but it’s not a good home, and it’s in a bad place. We’re happy because we know that Ashley will be raised in a good house.”

He already knows most of his soon-to-be neighbors in the 50-home community, especially Rosana Ruiz. Rosana is his sister and is raising two children of her own, a boy and a girl.

I’m happy because the house we’re in now is not good, and we want to raise our children in a decent house,” she said. “I didn’t think it would happen this quickly. It’s a big deal. We’re grateful to God first. These things come from God — and from you guys, as well.”

Not only will the new community have water and sanitation, but each home will have bathrooms with toilets and sinks. Reliable and safe power will allow families to cook inside of their homes.

Because families have contributed sweat equity as they’ve worked alongside Fuller Center Global Builders volunteers, local laborers and prisoners to build the homes, they have an extra sense of pride. And they are not charity cases but givers themselves as they will repay the costs of construction materials, over time, on terms they can afford with no interest charged and no profit made. Those repayments will be recycled to help others in their community get the very same hand-up into decent homes of their own.

Instead of living on dirt floors, these families get a whole new opportunity at life,” said Indiana State Sen. Jeff Raatz. “Not only that, it’s theirs and they have to pay on a monthly basis, so they have some skin in the game. While that may seem harsh, the dignity connected with this really makes a difference in their lives. And then bringing the Gospel to them on top of it, I can think of no better way to do it than that.”

Each of the homes has interior plumbing, something many Americans take for granted.

Jeff Papa, who is a member of The Fuller Center’s board of directors and The People Helping People’s advisory council, has become used to seeing remarkable progress in El Salvador and noted the stark contrast between the slums that the group visited in Nuevo Cuscatlán the day earlier and the new or established communities full of simple, decent homes.

I think the constant increase in the number of houses that The Fuller Center has been building is really impressive,” said Papa, who has visited El Salvador multiple times. “We usually go and look at who we’ll help next, and we’ll look at a project that’s being done or has been done. When you look at the places are that we’re trying to pull them out of, they live in some pretty squalid conditions. It’s very upsetting, so to see them the next year in their nice new Fuller Center homes is always really just touching and amazing.”

Mark Bowell noted that this new 50-home community is poised to become yet another shining example not just of a successful housing effort but a complete community.

There are others that have been done here through The Fuller Center that have many of the same types of characteristics, but this is a special place,” he said. “These people are just wonderful, absolutely wonderful. … I just think it’s outstanding. The vision, seeing what was here a year ago and know the effort that’s gone into creating these 50 homes is really fantastic.”

Bowell is working with The People Helping People Network and other connections to add one more touch that he believes will help make the community complete — a church adjacent to the homes.

God just laid it on the heart of the organization,” he said. “I’ve got some great Christian brothers that have built churches all over the world, and we’d love to show them the opportunity. If I can be a catalyst to make that happen, it would be a great opportunity. We want to build a house of worship and a place for these wonderful people to come and engage and meet Jesus.”

Bobby Dillehay, meanwhile, could already feel the spirit in the air and was brought to tears by his engagement with the families of Juayuá.

What a beautiful site behind us!” he exclaimed. “I feel like we’re in Heaven. Doors are opening right now.”

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