(Photo: Michael Oliphant during a 2017 Fuller Center Global Builders trip to Pignon, Haiti.)
Three Haitian families thankful Michael Oliphant turned 2020 obstacles into opportunities
Michael Oliphant of Hayesville, N.C., spent a week this past January with a team of Fuller Center Global Builders volunteers in El Salvador laying the groundwork for a new 34-home project — the beginning portion of a community of at least 150 new homes in one of The Fuller Center’s most active building sites.
It was his 10th Global Builders trip, and he was so excited to be on the ground for the project’s beginnings that he planned to lead another team to El Salvador this past September to help put finishing touches on the homes. That was in addition to a Global Builders trip to Nepal he already had planned for this coming January.
However, like so many of us, Oliphant saw his plans altered by the coronavirus pandemic that began spreading around the world shortly after his trip to El Salvador. As both a regular Global Builder and a Bicycle Adventurer, he witnessed both programs take a hit from the pandemic.
In the spring, though, those two programs united to form the Global Home Challenge — a virtual experience to fill the void. Participants logged their physical activities such as cycling and raised funds to support The Fuller Center’s international building partners. Oliphant was among many to seize upon the opportunity and biked more than 600 miles while raising more than $6,000 through his own support and more than 60 generous friends. That funded the construction of two homes now occupied by families in Pignon, Haiti — another of The Fuller Center’s thriving international partners.
Oliphant would prefer being both a financial supporter and a volunteer in the building of those homes, but his virtual efforts are the next best thing.
“It’s been a bright spot for me in this year because it’s a way to get something done,” he said. “Being on site to work is about as much fun as I have, but it’s still hard work. But this is a way to get something built without having to carry blocks, which is OK, too.”
Much of his fundraising success has been with the help of fundraisers through Facebook. In fact, he launched another Facebook fundraiser on Giving Tuesday to support his virtual Global Builders trip to Haiti, which is funding a third family’s home. After he invited more than 200 people to contribute through the social media effort, at least 29 people have given more than $2,500 toward the effort, which add to the funds raised through Oliphant’s virtual trip page.
“With Facebook, I initially got at least 20 responses out of that,” Oliphant said. “Those were from people who were friends or people I knew one way or another — some Fuller Center connected, some just friends from other places. Then I saw a round of donations from people I don’t even know. That’s been nice.”
Though he has been tremendously successful in his fundraising efforts, he does not consider himself to be any sort of social media fundraising guru. But he definitely recognizes the potential value of individuals leveraging their connections on Facebook to support the work of nonprofits like The Fuller Center.
“It’s not enough to build an organization on, but if you get a dozen people doing what I’m doing or a hundred people doing what I’m doing, then you can get some good results,” he said. “But the key for sure is to invite people. That’s just a matter of five minutes work pushing buttons.”
Another key is having a specific goal and putting a face on the effort.
“I think it’s important having a link to a specific project — not just for The Fuller Center,” he advised. “The Fuller Center is another in a long list of nonprofits that deserve support, sure, but this is really targeted to building a house for a specific family, and I think people are responsive to that.”
Supporting a desperate family
The specific family for whom Oliphant now is raising funds is that of Dorvil Dieunel, a store clerk, and his wife, Shelove, who is a cleaner at a nearby school. They currently are raising their two children — 9-year-old Epraim and 7-year-old Westessie — in a one-room shack with mud floors and crumbling walls. Shelove puts makeshift beds on the floor upon which her children sleep at night — unless it rains, in which case they all pile into the same bed.
These terrible living conditions are blamed for the health problems that led to the deaths of their first two children.
Now, after five years of saving and with the support of Oliphant and his friends, they will soon have a simple, decent and safe place to live. Having been on four actual Global Builders trips to Haiti, Oliphant knows that Geral Joseph, leader of The Fuller Center’s operations in Pignon, will get the job done.
“’I’ve been there enough and trust them enough to get it done,” he said.
He also added that simple and decent homes in Pignon also are simply beautiful, and he looks forward to seeing the finished product when the Dieunel family’s home is complete. He noted with a laugh that his builds in Haiti lack the color of the finished products he sees in photos when the projects are complete.
“The whole time we’re there, it’s all gray — gray blocks and gray sand and gray cement,” he said with a chuckle. “You leave town, and it’s still gray. Then two or three weeks later, you get this photograph of this incredible masonry work that they’ve done and just beautiful paint jobs. That’s part of the fun, though. Of course, you can always go back to these sites and look at the homes you’ve built before. That’s always a fun thing to do.”
Fuller Center Vice President of International Programs Ryan Iafigliola is hardly surprised that Haiti is a good fit for Oliphant’s virtual efforts, considering Joseph’s outstanding track record of getting homes built efficiently in Pignon.
“Our local partners, led by local people, are our greatest strength as an organization,” Iafigliola said. “That’s enabled us to keep building even when many others can’t. We miss our volunteers greatly, but the lives of real families are continuing to be changed, and through our revamped virtual program you can still ‘meet’ the family your effort is impacting.”
Though the Virtual Global Builders Program is not new, most people have preferred actual volunteering — getting dirty and sweaty while immersing themselves in different cultures and making new friends around the world. Fuller Center Global Builders Coordinator Ian Burkes hopes that if 2020 had done nothing else, it has shed a little light on this option to help get houses built, especially for those who may not have the means or time to travel as frequently as others.
“I think our virtual participants program is really just what we need right now,” he said. “We all wish we could be out in the field, meeting families and working alongside them, but volunteering virtually allows us to replace uncertainty with certainty. You may not know if you can travel to some country in the next few months, but by participating in a virtual build you know you’ll help a family build a safe, simple, decent house of their very own, and you’ll get to know their story as you do.”
Join Michael Oliphant in building a new home