Hampton Bays man helps build homes in El Salvador

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Craig Higham had his world turned upside down last month when he traveled to Central America to help a community of people he had never met.

The Hampton Bays resident and financial advisor said he took the trip of a lifetime when he spent nine days with native El Salvadorans, helping fellow volunteers build a 75-home community with Habitat for Humanity International.

Mr. Higham said the disparity between the El Salvadoran way of life and life back on the East End was jarring, giving him a new perspective upon his return to the United States. “It made me a lot more grateful for the things we have here,” he said.

The project, which has involved sending volunteers to El Salvador three times a year since 2006, was made possible through a partnership between Mr. Higham’s employer, Minnesota-based Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, and Habitat for Humanity International. The El Salvadoran development, on which ground was broken in 2006, is expected to be completed by the end of 2010 and will include two community centers in addition to 75 homes.

Thrivent Financial selected 28 employees to make the November trip and Mr. Higham was chosen by the company to represent the firm’s entire Northeast region. “They picked 28 [volunteers] out of 700,” Mr. Higham said.

He noted that he was grateful for the experience and touched by the response of the El Salvadorans to his team’s efforts. “Their level of gratitude was overwhelming,” he said.

Habitat for Humanity usually requires that future homeowners own the land on which their houses will be built, though Mr. Higham explained that this particular project is unique. Acknowledging the level of poverty in El Salvador, Habitat officials are lifting that requirement, he said. Instead, the organization will deed over the land and houses once the families move in.

Mr. Higham explained that in Santa Ana, the second largest city in El Salvador, it is extremely difficult for many to earn enough money to afford decent shelter and still be able to feed their children. In a country where there is a need for 400,000 homes, conditions are so bad that many people live in tiny shacks constructed from junkyard metal and go without proper plumbing or sanitary systems.

“This is an economy where the average wage is $156 a month,” he said.

The volunteers in El Salvador constructed what will be known as a Charlotte model community because its structure will serve as an example for other future Habitat-sponsored development.

Mr. Higham explained that during last month’s trip he and his crew cleared swaths of jungle armed only with machetes. “We basically cleared enough land for 10 houses,” he said.

The new homes will each feature two bedrooms and be constructed with concrete and steel. They will be equipped with running water and electricity. “They’re very simple by western standards,” he said, quickly adding that they are a large improvement over the homes that many El Salvadorans currently live in.

He noted that despite having few worldly possessions, El Salvadorans displayed a wealth of spirit and generosity seldom seen in American life. “There wasn’t that materialism,” he said.

For construction materials, volunteers frequently purchase supplies out of their own pocket to use during the trips. Mr. Higham explained that the supplies were left at the site and will be used on future trips. “We brought gloves and boots,” he said. “It builds up.”

Nakia Fowler, a spokeswoman for Habitat for Humanity, said Thrivent Financial has built more than 1,000 homes with her organization. “Habitat for Humanity is grateful for the alliance with Thrivent Financial for Lutherans,” she said.

Mr. Higham stated that in spite of the language barrier, Thrivent Financial employees and El Salvadorans were able to communicate and work together to build the community. “It turned out not to be a barrier at all,” Mr. Higham said. “We all had a certain goal in mind.”

Kelsie Midthune, a publicity specialist for Thrivent Builds, the alliance forged between Habitat for Humanity and Thrivent Financial, also helped clear land during last month’s trip. She added that such excursions allow volunteers to step outside their comfort zone and help others in need.

“Most people go on vacation and pay to have people serve them,” Ms. Midthune said. “It’s an opportunity to get to know other people and serve others.”

A not-for-profit Fortune 500 company, Thrivent Financial offers a range of services, from life insurance to mutual funds, to its nearly three million clients. It also donates all of its yearly profits to charities like Habitat for Humanity International. According to Mr. Higham, the company has donated $1.3 million to the project in El Salvador thus far.

“We know on paper the things we do for the community,” he said of his company. “[In El Salvador], we’re able to see the end results.”

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