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Volunteering abroad


Millersburg native Duane Faas makes a papoosa with a Salvadoran while volunteering in Villa Esperanza in May. Through his workplace, Faas was able to spend one week in El Salvador building homes.

Just one month ago, Millersburg native Duane Faas, 57, stepped off North American soil for the first time.

But his one week in El Salvador was not a vacation.

Faas did not return with loads of souvenirs and photographs. Instead, he came back five pounds thinner with a longing for American toilets, cooler temperatures and a strong urge to give back to others.

It was earlier this year when Faas, a Thrivent for Lutherans financial associate in Ames, applied to build homes overseas through the Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity program. The program gives employees of Thrivent, Lutherans and friends of those on the trip the chance to spend one week building homes abroad. After thinking about applying to the program for some time, Faas sent in an application this year.

“I felt this would be a tremendous experience,” he said. “There’s so many organizations that want money, and you always question if it’s really worth it to send money overseas to support another country. You always question whether it’s a good or bad idea. I did this so that if someone came and asked me, ‘Is it worth it?’ I could tell them my experience,” he said.

Some time later, Faas found his financial performance record and previous volunteer work had earned him a spot on a team of 30 Thrivent employees headed to El Salvador May 21.


As with Habitat programs in the United States, the organization specifies at least two people of the future homeowner’s family must work on site every day. The families that are selected for the Habitat program are homeless or live in substandard housing.

A good number of El Salvador’s people qualify for Habitat homes. Thrivent estimates the country of 7.2 million people has lost approximately 400,000 homes in recent years through natural disasters and poverty. In 2008, Thrivent declared it would restore 75 of these homes over a one and a half year period in Villa Esperanza, whose name names Hope Village. Faas was on one of the final teams to work on the project, which is expected to reach completion June 30.


One of the first things Faas noted when he arrived in Hope Village May 22 was the people’s living conditions. Those without Habitat homes lived in the most basic of shacks.

“You would see homes that were made out of scrap wood, plastic, corrugated tin. We wouldn’t have people living in those in the United States. It’s unbelievable what they live in. Unbelievable,” he said.

Outside the meager shelters, you might find brightly colored flowers that were well tended to and homeowners whose neat, clean appearance would make you second-guess whether these people owned this shack.

“These people are very proud people. They’re neatly dressed and very appropriately dressed. They take pride in how they look. They don’t have holes in their jeans. They’re taking care of their places because they’re very proud of what they live in, even though it’s very little,” Faas said.

Back in the community of more than  50 Habitat homes, the same brightly colored flowers decorated the front yards. Chickens, Salvadorans’ main source of meat, clucked in the back yard, often among a garden of peppers, potatoes, radishes and onions. The entire property was surrounded by a fence made out of three strands of barbed wire. Faas said he believed the fences were a security measure, as were the policemen who walked around day and night in the community with weapons that looked like sawed-off shotguns.

“They were very nice and friendly, but they were always there,” he said, noting he and other members of his team never witnessed any violent acts there.


Faas discovered early on the homes he would work on during the week would take more work than Habitat homes he’d worked on in the states. In the states there were power tools. In El Salvador, almost every part of the build had to be done by hand.

On his first day on site, Faas helped dig out a trench measuring three feet deep and two feet wide with a shovel. Volunteers used an ax to clear the trench of coffee tree roots. Cement blocks were hand-chiseled to be made flush with a house’s retaining wall. And nearly all dirt, as well as the cement blocks the house would be made from, was transported in small amounts by wheelbarrows.

“It might be half a block from you, a block from you, might be two blocks away, but it was all (transported) by hand,” he said.

The Thrivent team also learned quickly that they were the ones who would be taking directions on builds.

“We did not tell (the Salvadorans) what to do. We had interpreters telling us what to do,” he said.

Though they spoke little to no English, sometimes a Salvadoran’s knowledge of American phrases and gestures would surprise the volunteers.

“There was one guy who if things weren’t going quite the way they should, he would say ‘No, no, no’ and swing his finger back and forth. Somebody must have taught him that,” Faas laughed.

College-age Salvadoran Masons worked eight hours a day alongside Thrivent members in temperatures in the upper 80’s and 90’s. The Americans were extremely hot in T-shirts and shorts, while the Salvadorans didn’t blink an eye at the humidity.

“You never saw men over there with shorts on. It’s 85 to 95 degrees and we’re sweating like crazy and they’re not sweating at all and they have their jeans on and long-sleeved shirts,” Faas said.

The Salvadoran Masons also differed from the Americans in that they were paid to help build homes — $20 an hour.

The average Salvadoran makes 50 cents per hour, which is not enough for most parents to send their kids on a $1 bus ride to school each day.

“They have a tremendous problem of uneducated young people over there because they can’t afford schooling,” Faas said.

The homes Faas and the Masons built were much nicer than the shacks, but still basic compared to an American home. They were 450 square feet with three rooms, made of earthquake-resistance concrete and corrugated tin roofs. The homes featured two electrical outlets, running water, windows exposed to the outdoors and toilets — but not the kind you’d find in the states.

“We heard ‘No flush T.P. a lot.’ When you got done with the toilet paper, you put it in the wastebasket. I guess their sewer systems are not at a point where they can handle toilet paper. That was very hard to get used to,” Faas said.

The houses were without heating and air conditioning and ceiling fans. Most people did not own refrigerators. All other appliances, including television sets, were outdated by American standards.

“What we’d see in the 40s and 50s — it’s all over there.” It was clean and in good condition, but it’s been quite a while since we’ve seen them in the United States,” Faas said.

Attached to the back of the home was the kitchen. Faas never saw an oven. Laundry was done just outside the kitchen using a washtub and washboard. Clotheslines served as outdoor dryers.

There were no garages, either, as many people took public  transportation (colorfully painted former school buses), biked or walked.


The villagers ate many versions of tortillas filled with refried beans, cheese or chicken. Fresh papaya, pineapple or watermelon was served as dessert, sometimes sweetened with honey. All food was served in portions smaller than you’d see in America. Faas said he doesn’t recall seeing one overweight local in his time there.

“They’re very healthy looking people. An extra large or XXL T-shirt is almost unheard of. You never saw anybody smoke ever, either,” he said.


Men wore jeans and T-shirts, while women wore dresses. The attitude of both was the same, though — proud, yet incredibly grateful.

“They would talk so much through interpreters that they were so blessed that there were people that would want to come over there and help them build homes and work side by side with them,” Faas said.

The Salvadorans were also incredibly giving, sweet-natured people. Faas witnessed this more than once in his week working in Villa Esperanza. Once, when a machine that compacts soil stopped working, the Salvadorans searched high and low for a rope they could use to fix it. When none was found, one of them handed over his shoelace. Another time, one of the American’s backpacks was stolen. Though the Salvadoran Masons suspected it was someone outside of the village, they apologized profusely to the volunteers.

“You would have thought it was a national disaster. They were so devastated that someone from El Salvador would come in and take a backpack. We probably had about a 15 minute apology from four or five of the Masons,” he said.


By the end of his trip, Faas had lost five pounds, but gained a deep appreciation for the Salvadorans and their giving nature.

“I think one of the most amazing parts is trying to comprehend how giving these people are, how hard they will work and how much they will give. These people have so little to give and yet they give so much,” he said.

While Faas’ job as a financial associate  is to help American families build financial security, he said he hopes he was able to do the same in a way for the Salvadorans.

“By going to another country, I can show them how important their families are. By going over there and working with them, they’re able to provide a home for their family. A home is the first step of building financial security for their families,” he said, noting without the volunteers’ help it would take approximately 18 months for one family to build its own home by hand.

Faas would like to lead a Thrivent team on a build abroad sometime in the next few years.

Faas’ team finished one house and reached over 50 percent completion on four others in one week. Today, approximately 60 of the 75 homes have been built in Villa Esperanza.


UPDATED June 29, 2010 10:38 AM

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