Setting the standard for effective leadership in Pignon, Haiti
PIGNON, Haiti — When Geral Joseph first approached The Fuller Center for Housing in the mid-2010s about forming a covenant partner in Pignon, Haiti, he almost seemed too quiet and too matter-of-fact about bringing the Fuller Center model to his community after years of working with another housing nonprofit.
His pitch was: Pignon needs homes. I build homes. You build homes. Let’s build homes … together.
Sounded simple enough. With work having just wrapped up on The Fuller Center’s Lambi Community near Gressier, just west of the crowded capital of Port-au-Prince, The Fuller Center — which does not plant partners but listens to invitations — was open to new opportunities to help families in the troubled nation seize a hand-up into better living conditions. Pignon seemed like the perfect fit.
A community of about 30,000 people (many descended from slaves of French plantation owners of the 1700s), Pignon is about a three-hour drive north of Port-au-Prince (metro population of 2.8 million) along Route 3. It sits in a fertile valley where it is one of the country’s leading producers of sugarcane with the land suitable for the farming of many other crops.
The area is surrounded by hills that offer some protection from tropical weather systems. It boasts a 3,500-foot-long grass landing strip for aircraft and boasts its own electric grid and cooperative. The support of other nonprofits has helped it maintain effective schools, including its most notable, College de la Grace de Pignon with 1,100 students in grades kindergarten through high school. Joseph’s main job is as an administrator at that school.
Despite staying busy educating the youth of Pignon, he has exceeded expectations, including his own, as a home builder in Pignon with 106 houses completed to date. Still, in an area where most people live on less than $2 a day, his focus is on what needs to be done more than what has been accomplished so far.
“We have hundreds of people waiting for houses, and we want to build more houses for more people in the community and in Haiti,” Joseph says. “We are trying our best to do God’s work in the community, and we hope to do more in the future.”
While Joseph is not one to tout his home-building leadership in the community, his efforts speak for themselves in the form of beautiful little houses with bright colors and artistic features throughout Pignon. Features such as uniquely molded porch columns, decorative arches and window ornamentation do not add to the cost of the homes but definitely enhance their appearance. They’ve captured attention throughout Pignon and abroad.
“Geral is a quiet wonder,” Fuller Center President David Snell says. “Not given to idle talk, he simply goes about building houses with God’s people in need. And not just any house — he manages to build some of the most attractive Fuller Center houses anywhere and does it at a modest cost.”
Time and time again, Joseph has proven that simple and decent housing can be simply beautiful.
“We let the families choose the colors that they want,” Joseph says. “We have to respect the community and respect the culture of how they will feel in their new home. And we make sure that they are involved in the building.”
The requirement that families contribute sweat equity in the construction of their homes is a Fuller Center tenet that many thought was impossible in a country like Haiti where poverty conditions have been exacerbated by well-intentioned but ultimately disincentivizing handouts. In fact, some families struggling to survive in tin shacks and mud huts choose to partner with The Fuller Center even if it means waiting when they could otherwise immediately move to somewhat safer housing options.
“We have about 20 families who have been waiting for two years,” Joseph says. “They wait because they like the way we build homes. They like the designs. So we make sure we choose good skilled people to build for them.”
Local masons and construction workers have been crucial to The Fuller Center’s success in Pignon. The past couple of years have seen political turmoil and violence exacerbated by natural disasters, including a major earthquake in the southwestern section of the country. Volunteer teams with The Fuller Center’s Global Builders programs remain paused for now. That means the masons and construction workers who once labored alongside Fuller Center volunteers are now doing nearly all of the work.
Still, Joseph says, life is better for Haitians in Pignon than it is in more crowded urban areas.
“There are plenty of problems in Haiti, but in Pignon there is no crime, so it’s safer,” Joseph says. “There are problems getting gasoline in the country. And inflation is getting higher, so the poor are getting poorer. Most of the things that people need to do take them into Port-au-Prince. But in Pignon everything is going very well. The people in Pignon feel good, but they pray that the situation changes in Port-au-Prince so that we can function normally.”
Normal function would include welcoming volunteer teams once again, visits that Joseph and locals truly miss.
“Because teams have not been able to come, we have felt the situation for the past three years,” he says.
Thankfully, homes are still being built with the efforts of local laborers.
“What is good is that The Fuller Center of Pignon is not just building houses for people — we provide jobs, too,” Joseph says. “And people are happy about that. Some of our workers and masons want to work every day. They want us to give them a job to do every day. They praise the Lord because The Fuller Center keeps them very busy. We are very grateful for the impact that we are having in the community, not just the accommodations but also the jobs.”
Fuller Center Vice President of International Programs Ryan Iafigliola has long noted how The Fuller Center’s work in international communities has benefits beyond providing simple, decent housing — including promoting employment opportunities directly for laborers and indirectly for such occupations as bus and taxi drivers, as well as hotel and restaurant staff and local merchandisers. He praises how Joseph has managed to continue The Fuller Center’s positive impact in Pignon even without the help of his Global Builders friends.
“Geral is an honest man working in a place with very difficult circumstances yet manages to always keep things moving ahead,” Iafigliola says. “His work employs Haitians and produces houses that are not only healthy, permanent and life-changing, but also unique and beautiful.”
The participation of families in the building process is a tenet of Fuller Center philosophy that has taken root in Pignon, and so has the concept of repaying the costs of home construction through zero-percent-interest mortgages. Those repayments stay in the local community to help other families get the same hand-up, just as is The Fuller Center process in other international and U.S. communities.
In a land beseiged by well-meaning handouts from charities, the repayment program is working and funding new homes in Pignon. Joseph has ramped up financial literacy programs to help residents prepare for home ownership, and he has increased mortgage terms from 10 years to 12 to help people repay amid worsening economic conditions. With the repayments, donations from Fuller Center supporters and a reasonable construction cost of about $6,000 per home, the program remains strong and continues to move forward.
All of that comes back to one quietly effective leader who sets an example for others to follow if they truly want to transform communities and uplift Haitian families. As Fuller Center President David Snell succinctly puts it:
“The world could use more Gerals!”
Joseph, though, deflects the credit.
“I have to thank all of the people collaborating with us in Pignon to make our dreams come true in the community,” Joseph says. “We are so grateful for that, and we ask that everyone continue to pray for our work in the community — for our families and for Haiti. It’s very challenging here, and it has been very challenging as the leader. But, with faith and support, we keep moving forward.”