building houses under the volcano in Guatemala

Building Homes Under The Volcano

A family attempts to return to a troubled town

Like many parents, Piers Fawkes and his wife Hedy weren’t sure what to do with their summer last year. “When the holiday break turns up, we don’t always know what to do with our kids, where we should go,” Fawkes says. His son, at least, had expressed a preference: “We’re not going to another Spanish-speaking country are we?” he asked.

The comment struck a chord with Fawkes. Another parent at his children’s school had previously told him about an organization known as From Houses to Homes, and Fawkes saw an opportunity. “We basically said, okay, instead of not going to Spanish-speaking country, we’re going to double down. Maybe it’s time for the children and for us to not only see what really is happening in some of these parts of the world, but to actually contribute in a very hands-on way.”

From Houses to Homes works in Guatemala (also the site of last week’s Good Turn), where they bring volunteers to build houses for the country’s poor, and to help finance the provision of basic goods and services as well. “We did not know what we were going to do, we had no real idea, but we knew a house was going to be built within a week,” Fawkes told Good Turns recently.

“They had never had a lock before, they had never really had a door before”

That house was built through the labor of Fawkes and his family. “We turned up, and for five days we got on the back of one of those Toyota pickup trucks. We were taken to a village and we would walk through alleyways to a plot of land where there was just a corrugated tin shack, where a family would sleep. And over those five days, every day we would build one stage of this new building,” Fawkes says.

Fawkes (in blue hat, above) and his family (standing to his left) hope to return this year, but the town where they worked—Antigua—lies in the shadow of Volcano Fuego, whose eruption on July 3 caused extensive damage. While Fawkes waits to hear whether they’ll be able to return he has created a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the charity. (The money will not be used for the Fawkeses travel expenses, he points out. “All contributions after processing fees go to the charity,” he says.) The campaign is also a way for other people to help. “It’s very difficult for people to come to Guatemala to build,” Fawkes says. But they can still help, by contributing to purchase goods and services that Fawkes says will change people’s lives “exponentially.”

“In some ways it sounds very simplistic,” says Fawkes, who is founder and president of psfk, a media venture and consulting firm. “We would put the blocks up, my children would be putting the mortar between the block. As we did that, we also realized some of the issues that these families face.” These included such practical things as the fact that they often cooked within their precarious living space—filling the place with smoke—and prepared raw chicken and other foods in the same water in which they washed and drank. But things like more efficient wood-burning ovens and other fixtures can be purchased through From Houses to Homes, Fawkes says.

After five days of work, the family has a very simple, one-room cinderblock building with a roof. “You spend five days, and then on the fifth day you paint the building the color that the family chooses,” Fawkes says. “You’re painting straight onto the cinderblock, which still comes out bright, bright blues, bright reds. Then you have a ceremony where the family cooks you a lunchtime meal.”

“I went into this just very matter-of-fact,” Fawkes continues. “But when you sit with them, this family has no idea who you are, how you come to be here, how this has even happened to them. For them it’s like aliens have landed. It’s moving. But what’s more moving is, you are sat in their new house, where they’ve just cooked a meal, hopefully on their new oven. They’re sitting in a house that has walls, that has doors, they have a lock. The house we built was for two girls and their mother. They had never had a lock before, they had never really had a door before, which gives them safety and security, which allows that family to concentrate on other things.”

“You became very aware of the cycle of poverty,” Fawkes said. “The children came home from school, and you realized that, particularly the girls, they would be married by 15 or earlier, as they were deemed to be an economical issue. But meanwhile they had dreams to be veterinarians, dreams to be nurses and doctors and things like that. As an outsider, you could see the realities of the situation, that the family was not going to be able to pay for these children for much longer. So simple things like the oven free them up. Instead of cooking for hours per day and going off to do a job, the mother would only have to cook for an hour a day, which would allow her to work more or to care for her family. It’s amazing just to see these small tweaks and the impact on the families.”

Fawkes’s own children have had an amazing experience as well. “Just on a personal level, my kids have been learning Spanish since the day they went to school,” Fawkes says. Now aged 8 and 10, they still have an imperfect grasp of the language, needless to say. “But when they were there with the children in the neighborhood, they had to start speaking Spanish to communicate. They played that game of soccer in the streets with the kids and the workers. They understood the power of soccer, of football, of global sports, and how that could bring people together.”

As we understand the power of a global good turn. Whether Fawkes and his family manage to return to Guatemala this year or not, it’s good to know that such people are helping build not just houses, but a better future.

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