Volunteers praise build experience, thriving Fuller Center communities in El Salvador

The Fuller Center for Housing’s work in El Salvador has taken off in recent years thanks to an influx of financial support from Fuller donors and outstanding local leadership from our partners at Gente Ayudando Gente (People Helping People) — notably its determined leader, Lisselot Troconis.

Since 2016, communities of 99 homes in Nuevo Cuscatlán and 146 in Ahuachapán have sprung up and helped families who had been suffering in unhealthy shacks transform their lives with the solid foundation of safe, new Fuller Center homes. A new community of at least 150 homes is now rising within walking distance of the first Nuevo effort.

Unlike home-building efforts in Peru, Haiti, Nicaragua, Armenia and other international locations, Fuller Center Global Builders teams have not played a predominant role in the success story with few trips having been made to the country in recent years. However, volunteers who made a Global Builders trip to El Salvador last month say that may be about to change.

Volunteers Lilith Reeves and Rosio Bermudez

“We are definitely going back!” said Leah Thomspon, who co-led the trip with husband Rich. “We have done 13 prior global builds — some Habitat, some Fuller Center — and we all agree that this was the most rewarding build we had ever done. This entire El Salvador project is immensely impressive. Any Fuller Center team that elects to work here is lucky to be part of it.”

She noted that safety concerns from the past may still be lingering for some people preferring to volunteer in other international locations. However, El Salvador is a country on the upswing. In the fall, the State Department of the U.S. lowered its travel advisory for El Salvador from a Level 3 to a Level 2, which puts it in line with Global Builders destinations such as Peru, Bolivia, India, Papua New Guinea, South Africa and Nepal. Only Armenia and Ghana are Level 1 (“Exercise Normal Precautions”) Global Builders destinations. It is rare that a country that needs help addressing poverty conditions is lower than Level 2.

“It’s a beautiful country that felt very safe,” said Diane Wilcox, who was making her third Global Builders trip with The Fuller Center and had extensive international service trip experience in the past. “Several of us spent a couple of days a Playa El Pimental prior to the build, which was just delightful. Traveling to and from the work site, at the work site itself and on visits to the town center in Nuevo Cuscatlán and San Salvador we saw nice things, met locals and never felt concerned about our safety.”

“I know that concern over safety has been the main hurdle in getting teams to go to El Salvador in recent years,” Thompson added. “We experienced absolutely nothing that gave us concern about our safety. We commuted a half-hour to the build site on a daily basis and never had any cause for concern. One afternoon we visited the heart of San Salvador to see the sights. At no time did we feel threatened. Travel anywhere requires caution. I would never let safety fears keep me from visiting El Salvador, though, because the experience is too phenomenal to miss.”

Community building

The volunteers worked alongside families for a week on the beginnings of a 34-home site. Instead of working on one home, they helped set the stage for what is to come this year by digging footings, moving block and preparing rebar.

“Most of the trips I’ve been on have been one or two or three houses kind of spread around,” said Mike Oliphant, who was making his 10th Global Builders trip, four of which were to Haiti while this was his first to El Salvador. “But here you were able to see the whole picture. It was great to be in on the beginning of something of that scale.”

At no time was that scale more evident than the first day on the build site when the team of volunteers was met by a group of more than two dozen homeowner partners who were already at work. The two groups of people walked toward each other and met joyously in the middle of the site.

Lisselot Troconis leads volunteers on a tour of a completed 77-home project.

“I kinda wish there had been somebody with a drone filming that whole first meeting because it was just amazing,” Oliphant said.

He and the other volunteers got a sneak peek of what will become of their foundational work when they walked the short distance to the 77-home community that sprung up in 2016 and launched The Fuller Center’s building boom in the country. They saw well-kept homes, happy families and entrepreneurs working from homes. They witnessed safe electricity, clean water and paved streets.

“The houses are all well cared for with a lot of flowers and plants and kids running around,” Oliphant said. “It was fun to walk through it with Lisselot because she knew everybody in there and knew their stories. People would see us and invite us in to see their houses. It was just a real thriving and comfortable community.”

“Every one of the homes was immaculately kept up both on the inside and the outside, and pots of flowers were sitting on most porches,” Thompson said. “The families were very proud of their homes. And the streets of the community were all paved using a portion of the families’ repayments. The community was exactly what we all envision being part of creating when we sign on for a build.”

Why The Fuller Center’s work is thriving in El Salvador

The volunteers cited a number of reasons for a service trip that several called their best ever — including plenty of work to do, more than enough tools, active homeowner engagement in the building, outstanding food and lodging. But the most common observation by members of the team was the outstanding leadership by Gente Ayudando Gente’s Lisselot Troconis and her entire team, including construction supervisor Miguel “Chele” Panameño.

Mike Goodloe, who was making his second trip, was particularly impressed with the holistic approach to community building.

“The most important thing was seeing what Lisselot was doing in the country,” he said. “This included not only the several neighborhoods that had been created — allowing people previously living in very poor circumstances to have an entirely new and better place to live — but all that she was doing to support these neighborhoods with opportunities for medical care, jobs and more.

“It is a complicated business to acquire resources, get government cooperation and work through all of their requirements, organize the staff and inspire and organize the private sector as well as the community members themselves to pull together to accomplish things,” Goodloe added. “People with the motivation and talent to do things like that are rare. Lisselot seems to have a vision and this tireless energy to implement it.”

Volunteer Lee Zwanziger

Lee Zwanziger said she was also impressed with the broad approach of Gente Ayudando Gente’s development mission and how Troconis and her team engage with community members before, during and after they have decent places to live. She noted that building communities of decent housing like this near the shacks where they once lived keeps communities cohesive.

“They take care to move existing community members to better housing so that they can keep their community ties, for example, to schools and churches as well as one another,” she said. “They work with them to construct better housing and then — very importantly — follow up with community and individual meetings on community concerns. Lisselot surely deserves a great deal of credit for the vision and the execution of this thorough and inspiring program. And the staff members from Miguel to the guides and drivers were all also outstanding.”

Thompson was particularly impressed with the way Troconis deals with homeowners on an individual basis.

“Lisselot makes it a point to know all of the homeowners, and she visits them frequently, keeping them on track with home maintenance and ensuring that loans are repaid. As loans are repaid, she uses that money to further improve the community. She holds community members responsible for maintaining that community and repaying house loans long after the homes are completed.”

(Editor’s note: New Fuller Center for Housing homes worldwide are purchased with zero-percent-interest, no-profit-made loans and no profit made. These repayments stay in the local community to help their neighbors in need get the same hand-up assistance into decent housing, making Fuller Center homeowners givers themselves rather than charity cases. This recycling of funds also ensures that operations can continue to thrive over the years.)

Wilcox appreciated that the support did not come just from Fuller Center homeowners.

“The locals seem very engaged and supportive — not only the inspirational families with all of their hard work building a better future — but the town itself seemed to be behind the project,” she said. “It just felt like a well-oiled machine that we walked into.”

Every well-oiled machine, though, could use a tune-up to maximize its efficiency. Fuller Center Vice President Ryan Iafigliola has visited these completed and in-progress Salvadoran communities and believes more Global Builders teams like the one that came in January would allow The Fuller Center’s operations in El Salvador to run at peak performance.

“We’ve had a spectacular program in El Salvador, but what we’ve been missing has been the Global Builders teams,” he said. “With the State Department recognizing the improved safety conditions in the country, it’s time to change that!”

“The program is snowballing with plans to build with our partners our biggest community yet — and more locations are in the works,” he added. “This is one project that people have just got to see.”

The Global Builders volunteers on January’s trip not only have seen it, but they plan to see it again.

“It is a project that we were all honored to be a part of, and it was the best build we have ever been a part of,” Thompson said. “All of us intend to go back to do it again.”

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