This time, the homes went up faster and got painted. This time, she knew her way around a drill.
Mary Lopez was the only Omahan to return to Haiti recently for the second year of a two-year homebuilding blitz in Léogâne, a coastal town leveled by the 2010 earthquake.
And this time, she took her husband, Rodrigo Lopez, and an Omaha crew twice as large as last year’s group. They could see, from her previous work, what happens when you build a tiny house in a country desperately in need of them.
Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, headlined the Habitat for Humanity project, in which 255 houses were built in one-week blitzes over two years.
The project drew 1,000 volunteers from the United States, Canada and Europe and involved hundreds of Haitians who were employed by Habitat as translators or in other jobs. Other Haitians, who were to live in the Habitat houses, put in the nonprofit organization’s required “sweat equity” — physical labor on the building site.
The Carter Work Project in Haiti is part of Habitat’s multifaceted approach in dealing with the country’s chronic housing shortage after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that struck south of the crowded capital, Port-au-Prince, nearly three years ago. The earthquake killed tens of thousands of people and left an estimated 1.5 million without shelter.
Habitat has said it hopes to help 50,000 Haitians over five years with services from temporary shelter kits to construction and financial literacy classes.
Mary Lopez, 57, a retired university career director and community volunteer, was so moved by her experience in Haiti in 2011 that she wanted to go back. She took husband Rodrigo Lopez, the president and CEO of the mortgage lending firm AmeriSphere.
Rodrigo Lopez, a native of Colombia, is a well-traveled amateur mountain climber and photographer. He said the slums of Port-au-Prince were the worst he has seen anywhere, including in Latin America and India, because of their scale and magnitude.
Because of high security surrounding former President Carter and because of the focus on Léogâne, a coastal town about 18 miles south of the capital, Habitat volunteers didn’t get to see much of Haiti beyond the build site. They saw Port-au-Prince only from their bus windows.
They spent five days in late November in the tropical sun, working on Houses 608 and 609. These are simple structures that measure 280 square feet. Each has a raised concrete floor. Walls are half concrete block, half plywood. Roofs are metal.
There is no plumbing or electricity. The high-pitched roofs and wooden shutters allow for airflow. The structures are designed to be added onto later.
Each home has its own outhouse, and residents share a community water supply.
The Omaha team included First National Bank employees Ryan Kellogg, Robyn Little, Randy Walther, Michael Blackburn and Matt Mayer; Habitat employees David Klitz, who runs Habitat’s ReStore store, and Ken Mar, chief financial officer and chief operating officer; and Dan and Esther Brabec.
Dan Brabec was formerly president at Great Western Bank and is now a vice president at Capital Investors. Esther Brabec is a former French teacher who was able to translate the Haitian Creole.
That was one of the most important tools, Mary Lopez said. When one of the would-be homeowners saw she was getting her own bedroom — albeit tiny — with walls and a door that closed inside the house, she beamed. It was the first time she would have her own room.
“She started to say, ‘I want to thank you,’” Lopez said, “and she started to cry.”
Lopez said it was a joy to return to Haiti and visit the houses she and three other Omahans worked on last year. None of the Haitians who lived there were present, but she could see the homes completed, painted and sitting amid a green tableau of well-tended gardens, lush tropical plants and clotheslines.
Last year’s team worked hard but couldn’t finish the two houses on time.
This year, one of the houses that the team was to build already had some of its wood wall forms up. Habitat had fine-tuned its machine, improving how it doled out tools and construction know-how.
Each member had to raise $5,000 to fund the trip. The group then raised an additional $27,000 for Habitat for Humanity.
Mary Lopez said it was important to remember that the 2010 disaster’s effects continue, as do the underlying problems that existed before.
“It isn’t just one of those things you hear about on the news but goes away,” she said. “Haiti still needs assistance.”
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