Putting the Pieces Together

Normally, Wednesdays are a lazy day for me. My normal work schedule in Kentucky allows me to have Wednesday off to laze about or get some much-needed chores done. But I’m not in Kentucky anymore, and today was going to be everything but lazy. At the worksite, we left the house with its pieces on the ground. Today, they were going to be putting everything together at last.

We started by raising the back wall assembly into place. Then we raised the right-hand wall to stabilize the first wall. After we put in enough nails between the two walls to secure them into place, Alfonzo then instructed us to build the center wall that will hold the front and back walls together and split the house into two rooms. With the practice we got from yesterday, it took little time to assemble and put into place. We then continued to haul the remaining front and left-hand walls into their places before securing them into place for good into each other and the floor.

It truly was a magical moment to behold. To see the culmination of our sweat, strength, and teamwork evolve a two-dimensional pile of wood to a three-dimensional structure. Like a child’s pop-up book. But our task was far from finished for the day.

After a quick break of lifting the heavy parts into place and lunch with the children of HHM Outreach Center, Alfonzo divided our workforce into different teams: one team to build the tin plated roof, another to build steps for the doors and install window blinds, another for touch-up paint, and the last group to finish building the bathroom.

Normally families that move into homes like these cannot afford luxuries like electricity, running water, gas, or simple indoor plumbing. Despite not having these American essentials, these families are content that they have a new sturdy home in a safe neighborhood. Most families in Belize have to make do with what they can find and afford. Some families live in shacks made with any spare parts they can find in the most dismal of places. Others find shelter underneath other people’s homes and sleep alongside the rats and fire ants. On rare occasions, the recipients of HHM Building for Change program can afford things like plumbing and electricity. This time around however, an anonymous donor provided enough money so Pappy and Janet could afford indoor plumbing.

The design was not that difficult compared to the rest of the house. In addition to the 16-by-16 main structure there was a separate room that was going to serve as an indoor toilet area. All we had to do was build the 4-by-8 room. The plumbing was to be done by a different group at a later time.

When we returned home that evening, everyone was understandably sore and tired but undeniably proud. We had done what we thought was impossible. We built a house in three days! For the remainder of the evening, we stayed up as long as we could and partied over our greatest achievement.

Thursday morning, we headed out to the house one more time with our tools to do some last-minute additions, such as putting up the border trim, installing the front and back doors, adding some touch up paint, putting up our tools, and cleaning up any leftover lumber. After the work was done, we returned to the Starfish House to have some lunch. Later that afternoon, we changed into our new HHM T-shirts for the house-blessing ceremony, a sacred event in which the local priest came by and blessed the new house and welcomed the family into their new home. Several of us had bought some house-warming gifts to start off Pappy and Janet’s new life. I brought a horseshoe, a symbol of my home to bless their home and a Kentucky tote bag to help them bring in supplies and food. Another group brought a new Bible with all of our signatures in it. The next group brought some basic groceries to start the couple’s pantry. The next gift was a small fabric dog with the word Dreams stitched into the side. Our motto that week was “Teamwork makes the Dream work” and that dog was to symbolize that notion. Lastly, but not least, were the keys to the house.

Pappy and Janet were the happiest couple I have ever seen in my life. They cried, they smiled, they laughed, they were grateful, and they hugged each and every one of us. Despite the scorching-hot weather, the mosquitoes, the hole in my bank account, the setbacks during construction, and the pain from our sore hands, feet, and back. Seeing the joy on their faces made it all worthwhile. The couple was happy, my mission group and I were happy, and just as grateful for the opportunity to make a difference. The mission trip was an absolute success!

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The house was done. I have been to another country. I have seen another part of the world with an unfiltered lens. I had made a difference for a family. And the best part? We still had two more days till our week was up. After some group shots and some group hugs, we began to say our goodbyes to the happy couple and the other volunteers as we climbed back into the HHM van and drove off. We stop by the Starfish House just long enough to gather our things for the remainder of the day. Now that the work was done, it was time for some much deserved R and R.

After grabbing a quick daypack, we quickly made tracks to the Old Belize Museum. The place had a lot to offer to make their guests feel welcome: restaurants, gift shops, a large pool, and a Belizean history museum. The entire place was decorated with artifacts from the Pre-Columbian and Colonial of Belize. Such as old tools, rusted machinery, stone ovens, and other historic pieces that have survived the ages. Being a collector of such artifacts myself, I took great delight in just wandering the halls and admiring the craftsmanship from so long ago.

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When we came to Old Belize, my crew discovered that it was currently the off-season for tourism, so we were practically alone in the park. The museum was closed, but that was OK. We were far more interested in swimming in the pool, anyway. After working on a house for three and a half days, it felt wonderful to relax and play in the cool water of Cucumber Beach. After a few hours of swimming and going down the four-story waterslide, we dried off and ordered a couple of drinks from the bar before going home for dinner.

It was morning once again. Morning proceeded as normal. We wake up, get dressed, yoga stretches, pray, sit down for breakfast (eggs, bacon, johnnycakes, fry jacks), clean dishes, and assemble a daypack for the day’s appointments. From the beginning of the week, our daypacks were usually loaded with things for house building project. But today, they were geared for the exact opposite direction. VACATION!! With the work of the house done, the 2014 Belize Crew is now in full vacation mode!

Today we were going to do nothing but relax, explore, splurge, and create fond memories to say: This was the best week EVER!

Today, we started our retreat by journeying to the Altun Ha Maya Temples (not ruins); the site of an ancient civilization that once inhabited Belize. The civilization is most noteworthy for the large temples and monuments of stone they left behind. I am sure we have all read about such places during our time in school in time and didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about a bunch of old rocks in the middle of nowhere. It is not until you are face-to-face with these achievements that you can fully appreciate the size, scale, engineering brilliance, and mysteries of places like the Maya temples. You could never appreciate how big one temple is until you see that any one stone from its design could easily obliterate a modern SUV and then fully comprehend the significance of the question, how could the ancients build something like this? Photos in a travel or scenes in a travelogue cannot prepare you the sheer immensity of these temples. Really! I can tell you all I can and I can show you all of the photos I have taken, but you NEED to be here to know what it is like!

After touring the last temple, it was time to go. We were now on a strict timetable. Our final destination for today lies on an island, and the ferry waits for no one. We had to hurry. We hastily made our way back to the van, stopping only to pick up our wood carved-souvenirs from Frank Lizama before we leave for the best part of our holiday.

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.


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.


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.


After touching down and stepping out of our cool, comfortable, air-conditioned plane, the first thing I noticed about Belize is that it is hot. It may have been early afternoon, and it already felt like was hot and humid enough to bake breakfast on a sidewalk. Inside of the airport was not much better. While here, in the United States, we are spoiled enough we keep the inside of our buildings warm or cool according to what we desire, the buildings in Belize only provided shade and shelter. No air-conditioning. Residents of Belize didn’t care about the heat because that’s all they have most of the year. Belize only has two seasons all year round: hot and rainy.

Our bus driver and program coordinator, James, gave our group a tour around Belize City before heading to our boarding house for the week. The moment we started out, I noticed immediate differences between our cities back home and the city here. While in the States, people try to live apart from each other as much as possible. In Belize, it seems like the entire city was stacked on top of each other. All the buildings were meshed together and the entire populace was out and about. The streets were full of vendors selling the fruits of their trade to any passerby. Some sold fresh fish; others, fruit, hot lunches, and other goods. James went on to explain that Belize’s nationality is a mixed population of Maya, European, Spanish, Middle East, Asian, and American. Because of the density of the population and scarceness of resources, the people really don’t care about racial superiority. Nobody in Belize can afford to be picky about their neighbors. They only care about living their lives and will take any help where they can find it. The only real crime in Belize is illegal drug trafficking. Even the customs regarding driving differed between the United States and Belize. The rules weren’t difficult to understand. The main rules were whoever has the biggest car has the right-of-way and pedestrians are to make like a frog in traffic and DODGE!

We stopped by the Starfish House to drop off our luggage. But before we got comfortable at Hand in Hand Ministries’ (HHM) Belizean home, we were taken to the sites of past HHM house-building projects to meet the families who now reside in them. This tour was to give us newcomers an idea what the houses actually look like inside and out and to see how the families best utilize their home. This was also an opportunity for us to meet the kind of people we were helping during our stay.


After the second house visit, my consciousness began to steadily fade. Like a brick lunched from a second story window. My lack of sleep from the night before had finally caught up with me, and I felt like a dying phone battery. After we said our goodbyes to the families HHM has helped, we set off to the Starfish House, our home for the next seven days.

HHM uses the starfish emblem a lot during their line of work. They use the starfish as something as a mascot in a lot of their functions. The reasoning behind this is because HHM draws inspiration from “The Starfish Story.” The story goes like this:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed a figure in the distance. As he got closer, he realized the figure was that of a child picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean.

Approaching the child, he asked, “What are you doing?”

The youth replied, “Throwing starfish back into the ocean. The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”

“Dear,” the man said, “don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!”

After listening politely, the child bent down, picked up another starfish, and threw it into the surf. Then, smiling at the man, he said, “I made a difference for that one”.

HHM uses this story as their symbol, philosophy, and inspiration towards all of their endeavors. A metaphor I tend to agree with. In the line of social work and even as an individual, one person can’t change the world alone, but one person is enough to change the lives around him.

It was about late afternoon when my group finally returned to the Starfish House and my eyelids couldn’t have been happier. As soon as we crossed the doorway of the Starfish House, everyone soon drowsily migrated to their assigned beds and took a much-need nap before finishing dinner and a lovely mass at the open-air St. Martin’s Catholic Church.

I’m Ready to Go

Beep, beep, beep goes my alarm. As usual doing its daily duty to interrupt my dreams and remind me of my own daily tasks that can’t wait after nine in the morning. But today I needed to wake early, very early. Too early for work, school, or Christmas, although I was just as excited for the occasion. Today was special, for it was the day to make a difference to my life and many others. At 6 o’clock in the morning in the summer of 2014, I left for my immersion trip to Belize in Central America.

The concept of me traveling to another country has been a fond fantasy of mine. Whether it was for business or pleasure, I wanted to see the world in its true colors. On TV, we often hear the best features of a far-off place to attract tourists, and we hear the worst of another to fester panic for a news broadcast. I wanted to go to these places and see these places in their true light. I want to see the world through an unfiltered lens.

I have made attempts to follow this desire many times in the past. My first was in college and I applied to the school’s Study Abroad Program. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough money to take me through that route. After college I tried again through the Peace Corps. With a social work degree and a sizable volunteer background, I thought I was a shoe-in to travel AND inflict some good in the world. Alas, it was not to be. The national level recruiters thought that I didn’t have the social competence to handle changing circumstance on the job, and so that bridge fell through along with a good portion of my hopes for the future.

Out of desperation, I entertained the idea of joining the Navy. I had no illusion of being the next American super soldier, but given the vocation of the men and women who are on board these ships, they would surely need a psychologist for professional counseling on board while traveling from one port to another. I went to their recruitment office to ask if they had room for a social worker. Only to found out that it didn’t matter. The Navy hiring policy prevented anyone with autism to join under any circumstances. As you might imagine, I was understandably sore to be denied due to something that wasn’t my fault. And so I was stuck in Kentucky and forced to continue working at a job that exercises none of my talents and satisfies none of my desires.

During an average day at work, I was in the middle of my usual routine when a thought hit me, “Hand in Hand Ministries does mission trips right?” With that one question, more sprang up. What is involved in these trips? How much does it cost? What skills are needed? What good can I accomplish? Soon questions became curiosity. Curiosity became ambition. And ambition became a plan.

At once, I shot Hand in Hand Ministries an e-mail asking them about their mission-trip programs.

Ever since my Eagle Project during high school, I have been a frequent volunteer for Hand in Hand Ministries (HHM). Their needs were often domestic, such as unloading a truck of incoming donations, loading outgoing donations to needy communities, and preparing HHM’s newsletter. However, HHM’s yearly hallmark of accomplishments is in their immersion trips to Appalachia, Nicaragua, and Belize. Every year HHM would gather a group of volunteers to venture to these locations, spend several days with the local community, take some time to see the world as they do, and leave behind a change for the people there. Although I knew about of these programs, I was focusing my efforts in joining a Peace Corps-type program and never investigated what was involved in HHM’s overseas programs.

I looked over HHM immersion brochures and became attracted to their Building for Change program in Belize. The trip involved taking a group of about 13 volunteers to Belize City and building a 16-foot-by-16-foot house for a family in one week.

At first the idea sounded preposterous. A group of 13 with no home-building experience is going to build a house in just seven days? However, the manager of the program assured me that:

1) It is not only going to be the 13 of us. We will have additional help from other families and volunteers with homebuilding experience

2) HHM has built over 250 houses just like this all over Belize and has always managed to finish the job in three-to four-day span

3) A 16-by-16-foot house is about the size of a small garage. Plus, our task will not include installing electricity, running water, or outgoing plumbing.

With my doubts quelled I immediately made arrangements to follow this quest.

To make arrangements easier I booked my place on the trip months in advance giving me plenty of time to prepare. Getting the time off work was not a problem. After a year of box shunting, I was due for a trip anyways and was able to request a full week of vacation time off. The trip was expensive, too, but I have been saving my hard-earned money for just such occasion. Getting the supplies was no problem, either; HHM provided me a supply list and a schedule so I would know exactly what was supposed to happen and what I would need for that time. Naturally, my parents would be worried for my safety overseas, but they were proud to see me go out into the world and do some good like they had in their youth. With preparations set, I was ready to go and fulfill my ambitions at last.