Home Improvement: Belize Edition

 

Monday morning, everyone was up and about early and for good reason. We were in a different country so many of us wanted to go out and explore around the neighborhood. After a wonderful breakfast prepared by Caroline, Starfish House’s caretaker, many individuals from our group walked down the street to the nearby beach. Along the way, we saw some of the local wildlife that inhabited the streets. They included large iguanas that were easily the size of cats back home and colonies of crabs that have dug condos for themselves in the ditches of the streets. You see, Belize sits below sea level, so the ground is shallow enough for crabs to dig for damp homes for themselves. This also means that Belize is prone to flooding during the rainy seasons so many of the houses here are placed on tall pillars to prevent constant house flooding. As much as we wanted to explore some more, we had a job to do and I did not want to waste a minute of the day.

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Our first step was to collect wood form the lumberyard and haul it to the worksite. Normally, our project worksites are many miles away in the most remote areas of Belize, but not this time. This week our workplace was only a block away from the Starfish House, which was very fortunate for us. This way we can spend more time doing things and less time traveling to the location.

The worksite was on the property of Ms. Price, a longtime supporter of Pappy and Janet Castillo, the family we were building the house for. Ms. Price had donated a portion of her land so Pappy and Janet can have a safe place to live. At the work site we met the remainder of our crew. Besides our group of 13, there was also Beto and Alfonzo from HHM, who coordinate builds like these, volunteers from the local community, Pappy and Janet of course, and future HHM house recipients.

To complete our task for the week, we had but one power tool at our disposal, a power saw. Aside from the electric saw to cut the wood we need, we had no other power tools for our project. That meant no nail guns, no paint sprayers, and no power drills. Assembling the house was to be done by hand with hand tools and no preassembled parts, a concept that was quite foreign to most Americans. Most of the people in my group were not accustomed to building anything bigger than a birdhouse or using hand tools, including myself. The people of HHM have been in charge of over 200 house building-projects all over Belize, and they have taught newcomers less experienced than us how to saw, hammer, and paint houses just like ours. As such, during the floor assembly, everyone got a chance to practice hammering nails and sawing planks to size.

When our first goal was met, it was time to head back to the Starfish House to relax after a hard day’s work. While walking back home, I couldn’t help but feel proud that I was part of a group responsible for building that floor with our own hands. We were all so happy and proud. Later that evening, we bought some drinks and snacks from a nearby corner store to celebrate our first victory in making a change to a family’s life. Some of us sat down to a game of cards to unwind. Some of us shared stories and sang songs to boost morale. I preferred to sit on a pier on the beach with my new friends to just to bathe in the cool ocean wind, soothing ocean waves and watch the sun sink into the distance.

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While we were partying, a man from the Building for Change (BFC) program, Mr. Panton, stopped by to thank us for participating in this endeavor and to explain exactly how the program works. The main guidelines for the program are as followed:

-BFC and HHM investigates applicants to see if they really need a new home

-Applicants must have some way to pay for the house in a ten-year period

-Applicants must show their dedication by volunteering themselves to build two other HHM houses and their own house

-Applicants that pass investigation are under contract with HHM

-Contract lasts for ten years. After ten years, the homeowners can do whatever they want to the house

-While under contract, applicants are not allowed to add or subtract to the house without HHM permission

-While under contract, applicants are not allowed to rent the home to others and cannot add more people without HHM permission

-HHM does not do maintenance to completed houses. HHM empowers homeowners by teaching them how to build a house

-If any rules have been violated by the homeowner who does not intend to desist, HHM may reclaim the house

Thankfully, there have been very few instances where it has become necessary to reclaim a house.

The next day started out a little differently than yesterday. This morning we took a trip to HHM’s other Belize project: Hand in Hand Ministries Outreach Center. It is a small resource center for children who have been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS. This place teaches the children what HIV/AIDS is and how to prevent it for future generations. The outreach center also provides medicine, food, showers, preschool education and a safe place for the kids to play. When we came to visit, the center was closed for summer break so we got to see what the center looks like in its down period. We didn’t see the children of the center until Wednesday when Resource people invited us for lunch.

 

After completing the tour of the resource center, we took a detour to visit to Frank Lizama, the wood artist. Mr. Lizama used to be the mayor of Belize City; now he spends his time crafting and selling religious wood masterpieces in his shop. Some of his works can be found in St. Martin Church. The hallmark of his creations is his famous Y Cross. A wooden crucifix made of beautiful Zericote wood with the Son of God stapled to a “Y” shaped cross instead of the traditionally “T” shaped one. The story behind this piece is that whenever Frank looks onto a crucifix he asks, “Jesus, why did you die for us?” The reply in his heart is, “Because I love you.”

We placed our orders for some of Mr. Lizama handiwork, and we were given a chance to take a quick look around his workshop to see what a woodcrafter’s work place looks like and what kind of tools he uses. After the tour, we hastily returned to the worksite to resume our work on the house-building project. With most of the day already burnt out, we had little time to waste if we wanted the home finished on time. Today our daily goal was to build the four main walls and then paint them using oil-based paint.

As soon as we arrived to the workplace, everyone raced to their tools and work stations. I was part of the sawdust team. Our task was to use the power saw to cut the wood parts for the build team to hammer together. The painters would then come in to paint the finished walls.

Though the idea was straightforward enough, my group had never built a house before so we didn’t know what to do after each task was done. As such we spent a majority of the time looking for Mr. Alfonzo to tell us what was next or look around and see what else needed to be done. Thankfully, with everyone’s cooperation, we were able to complete the walls on time. Soon after, we returned home to rest, go for a beer run, and prepare for the next day.

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