Well; we’re back home now (with the exception of Fitz, who had to fly from Guayaquil through Quito to get to a business meeting in England, but he will be home tomorrow), we have begun the process of recovering from a long, hard week, laundry should be clean by now, and we have enjoyed a couple of non-submarine showers.
For the uninitiated, a “submarine shower” is when you get in the shower, get wet, and turn the water off. Soap up, turn the water on and rinse off. Repeat if needed (trust me, in Ecuador, we needed it!)
We’ve had something other than stale bread and peanut butter, along with sliced fruit, for breakfast. And that night’s sleep in our own bed . . .
But for we who were in Ecuador as a part of the mission trip this year, many images remain, and will so, for a long time.
The last day we went out to build, we were just down the street from one another. Gato’s back was still bugging him, so Pepe was back with us again. Team Gato built for Angela, a 39-year old single Mom, her 22 year-old daughter Sara (and her baby), and Angela’s two other children, Matthias (4) and Rumina (2). They were living in an 8-year old Hogar de Cristo home that had not been cared for, and was in great disrepair. Angela with stained glass window The children lived in the space beneath the home—mattresses on the ground. Their new home went in, about six inches separating it from the old home. Fortunately, we did not have to worry about setbacks or zoning variances. Digging through the drain field of their latrine to put two of the posts in the ground, however, was a different story. (The week’s best quote, thanks to Eric Edee, “Don’t eat the dirt,” was oft used.)
Team Ivan built for Maritza (49) and her children Kevin (7) and Christo (17). Maritza works about four days a week as a maid. Christo looks so small for a 17-year old due to malnutrition. But to show what character this young man has, Scott MacKenzie gave him a Powerbar, and he went down the street where some little girls were, and carefully divided it so that they all shared it—he did not eat it all himself.
Maritza family with Team

Showered and well-fed, we packed up and loaded up, and headed for the airport. The trip home was uneventful (if only the trip down had been so!), just mostly sleepless, so we all arrived home pretty tired. But we are home, in spacious, clean, air-conditioned homes, where we have more food than we need, and most anything we want, we can get without trouble. We have great transportation, well-stocked stores, and amazing support systems. All that is more than can be said for the families for whom we built, and there are thousands more—THOUSANDS—that need help.
We did not get to meet with the leadership of Hogar de Cristo this year; we do not know what happened, but the meeting simply did not take place. We heard that the Vice Minister of Housing for Ecuador met with them right before our arrival, and was allowing Hogar to continue their ministry of providing homes for the poorest of the poor, recognizing that Hogar is meeting a need that the government is not able to meet. So keep them in your prayers!
Sitting in the airport Tuesday night waiting to board the plane, Tim Adams commented well: “There were more than nine families whose lives were changed this week.” I looked at him, and he looked around at the group of guys who had just spent a week of their lives and cherished vacation on the trip. Well said. All of us who were there have had our lives changed, as well. May God continue to work in our lives!

Most of us live in a world in which a nice, sunny day, is a good thing. But when you are two degrees south of the equator, and you are working outside in the heat (and the A/C in the van you’re riding in has died), a sunny day is not a good thing.
Despite our best prayers for cloud cover, and a weather forecast for a pretty good chance of rain, we had a very sunny day today. Did I say very? I meant VERY sunny day. We also switched venues, from building homes in the area around the city of Daule (about 45 minutes north of Guayaquil), back to the community of Mt Sinai, an area that the city of Guayaquil annexed a few years ago, and which is rather close to the offices and compound of Hogar de Cristo, our ministry partner. We drove to HdC and met our maestros, with an added surprise of an old friend and maestro Pepe; he was coming along to help out team Gato, as Gato is still hurting from the back he hurt on Saturday—but not enough to hold him back from being with us.
One treat we enjoyed while we were at the Hogar compound was their flavored soy milk. Several years ago, Hogar started a side business making soy milk, after some visiting nurses from Brigham Young University found alarming rates of anemia in schoolchildren. It turns out that many children only eat when they are at school, and when the kids come to school on Monday mornings, they are famished and fainting. By adding soy milk to the school offering, not only are children getting added nutrition, they are also finding a way to decrease the anemia that is so rampant. We all grabbed a bottle and guzzled it down (we are getting virtually no protein at breakfast, and desperately need it—this helped, just a little.)
Then we headed to the build sites, dropping Team Ivan first, to build for an incredibly grateful and affectionate family (most of the guys got “double-cheek-kisses” from everyone in the family when the build was finished. Maria a single mom, has three children (18, 12, and 11), and helps to care for her 76 year old mother, with some help from her brothers (they are all in this picture). They survive—barely—on the $50 a month stipend from the government, and the occasional $15 that her son can bring in from sporadic work. Maria del Rose family & home
It took about another 45 minutes to get Team Gato to their site, after several twisty turny roads, washouts, and virtual rivers deterred the truck. Here they built for Julia, another single mom and her for children (15, 14, 10, and 4), but Julia has a bit better chance of “making it,” as her father, Rodolfo, is in the picture, and when he can find work as a plumber, can bring in up to $300 a month. When that does not happen, they “survive” on the $50 a month from the government. Julia and her family
Hard to believe, but we will head out tomorrow to build two more homes for two more families, then we will pack up and catch flights that will bring us back home. We ended this evening with a long-anticipated dinner at the Steak House, where we dined and laughed, and celebrated. Five men were inducted into the “Order of the Clavo Pequeno,” (the Little Nail—these were the Rookies on the trip); five others, who have been before, were inducted into the “Order of the Clavo Grande” (Big Nail); and Chris Southerland and Bill Schaeffer were inducted into the newly formed (as all these are) “Order of the Clavo Grande de Oro” (Big Gold Nail)—as they have participated in so many trips, blessing so many families. Boli Alfaro was presented an award with a Gold Nail, for Exemplary Service, for his vision, prayers, tireless work, and passion for the poor of this country.
The real end of the evening came when we returned to Schoenstaat Retreat Center, and celebrated the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, remembering the ultimate sacrifice made for us all.
“One day more,” as the song From Les Miserables goes—but two more homes to build. Keep us in your prayers as we seek to serve, in Jesus’ name!

Some Days . . .

June 8, 2014

Some days just don’t turn out the way you hope they will. But then again, maybe they do.

Our day began today as it did yesterday, with a simple breakfast, then piling into the van for the 45 +/- drive to the town of Daule, where we have been working this week. While yesterday we were working next door to one another, today turned out differently. We arrived at a build site, where one of the men we work with, Gato, waved “his team” over. We piled out of the van, as the other team (Ivan’s team) headed somewhere else. We’d enjoyed being together yesterday, and separation today was a disappointment.
Team Ivan built in an incredibly tight spot, but as the family they were building for—really only a couple, Guillermo (80) and Maria Teresa (78) are old enough, their build was only about three feet off the ground. The site was so tight, sandwiched between walls, and so gravelly and rocky, however, the augers were unusable. But this team prevailed for this couple who survive—if you can call it that, with no income, and only one meal a day, either provided by or made and delivered by their daughter who lives nearby. No job, Guillermo is unable to work (at 80, one would think SHOULD he?!), survive is the best they can do.
Team Gato had a seemingly nicer build site, next to a pond and marsh, but the site was terribly rock-filled, making sinking the nine posts that must go into the ground to support every home very difficult. Matters were made worse, when Gato turned funny to grab a piece of lumber, and blew out his back. The team was sidelined for the better part of an hour until he was able to operate again, and it took some time before he was moving with any ease. Clemente (75) and Anna (38, believe it or not!), similar to the other couple, have no work, but they have a $50 government stipend they receive every month, and have a sister-in-law nearby who looks in on them.Guillermo and Maria family
The team had to leave the site unfinished (but with Gato and Ivan and two Hogar de Cristo interns there) putting finishing touches on the stairs, as the delay was allowing dusk to move in, and we have been warned by Anna that there was a dengue fever risk from mosquitos in the pond. We parted, with stern words to Gato to rest tomorrow so he can join us again on Monday.
Chuck with Anna & Clemente  family
We wrapped the night up with a trip to Sports Planet, a restaurant we found about four years ago that we frequent every year. But even that experience, as similar as it is to one we would have in the States, is in sharp contrast to the experiences we have had building the last two days. We have been hungry, but we get more than one meal a day, and often we leave food on our plates, when others wish for another spoonful (or more). We have worked to the point of exhaustion, but we rest behind solid, secure walls, in the comfort of air conditioning. We shower daily, while those we build for may have a sponge bath now and then.
We debriefed last night, and talked some about the call of Abraham (Genesis 12.1-9), and were reminded that we are blessed—not by God so we can feel secure and comfortable, but we are blessed to be a blessing. We hope to be able to do that for the families we build for this week.
Tomorrow will be a day off to let our bodies recover to be ready for two more days of building. We’ll play tourist, and take it easy, but only so others can be further blessed.

There is an African proverb that says “It takes a village to raise a child” (sorry, but Hillary Clinton did not coin it, nor her ghostwriter; they merely capitalized on it.) Today, the men on our mission trip proved that it takes a team to build a community.
We returned today to the exact same build site where we were yesterday. Team Gato (Steve Ike, Ed Easterlin, Will Thomason, Doug Grady and Fitz Wickham—oh, yeah, and me) built for a small family, Katarina and Hamilton, and their three children (6, 3, and 2.) Katarina is actually the older daughter of Vincento, for whom we built yesterday. Here is a picture of the structure where they have been living.Katarina's home

Hamilton works as a furniture refinisher, but only when he can find work, which is not that often. Katarina told us that she does not know how much money he makes, or what they have, she merely asks him for money to buy food. When they have no money, they eat one of the chickens they own. Let’s hope the chickens keep replicating—but even more, that their income stream increases. Their home is literally right behind Vincento’s home, and we saw him a good bit today as we built.
Team Ivan (Chris Southerland, Bill Schaeffer, Jamie Bardin, Scott MacKenzie, Eric Edee, and Tim Adams) built for Norma Moran, a 70-year old woman, her son Danny (whom we met yesterday, and who is missing his left arm), and Danny’s daughter (I think) Iliana, a pretty 13-year old girl. This home is right next to Hamilton and Katarina’s home, so the teams worked next to one another all day, teasing and goading one another as the day went on. Norma told us that the only income they have comes from Danny’s sporadic work as a “recycler;” in Ecuador this means that he prowls the streets and collects trash that can be recycled, taking it to a recycling center, and on a good day he makes about $2.00 a day. And there are not many good days.
One of the humbling realities comes at the end of the builds, when we have finished, and we “present” the homes to the families. We give them a small replica of the stained glass Ascension Window at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, and remind them that the home is a gift from God, not from us. We thank them for the privilege of serving in the name of Jesus, and along with the home, give them a food basket that provides them with many, many meals. It is fascinating to watch these families, whose faces express not only the joy of having a home, but the humble acceptance of the home and a chance for a better life. Many times, the men (when they are a part of the family—often we build for single moms) cry, a remarkable reality in this culture.

Presentation to Norma and Danny

Presentation to Katarina and Hamilton
Then the toys and gift come out for the children, and joy starts all over again! Tonight we will all sleep well, the guys who missed out on building yesterday got their chance today—we’re all tired, but humbled, and grateful for the chance to serve these people, in Jesus’ name.
And we’ll be back at it tomorrow!
Here is the “village we built today: what you can’t see is Vincento’s home.
The village we built

Wednesday evening, as Boli Alfaro, Chris Southerland (and our driver Samuel) were eating dinner, I received a text that let me know that the team of men–ten guys–headed to Ecuador to join us for our build trip–were delayed in Miami. Long story short, after several delays, they were told to disembark the aircraft, and that they would be spending the night in Miami. There was a mechanical problem with the aircraft (which was never explained), and their departure was moved from 6:55, to 7:30. To 8:00. Then 8:20, then 8:00 Thursday morning.

Thanks to modern communication, we were talking with them, texting, and tracking updates on an app. So the question became what to do, given the expectation that the earliest they would arrive and be ready to head out to work was 12:30/1:00.

Chris and I decided to head out as early as possible, meet our maestros (master carpenters) Ivan and Gatos, whom we have worked with for seven years, and see what we could get done. We left Schoenstaat around 8:00 AM, about the time the team left Miami. Delivered to the build site in Daule, a city some distance from Guayaquil, we met Gato and Ivan, and started work around 9:15. Here is the “before” picture:









We built for Vincento, an older gentlemen who was with us much of the day. He is 75, and has three children–11, 13, and 15, and his wife has left him, because she was younger and she did not like being with an old man. He works when he can, and makes do with that and government handouts.

Geez. Imagine being 75, and having three (almost) teenagers to raise on your own. The good news is that he has an older daughter who lives next to him, who we will build for tomorrow. She can help him. Hopefully more about that situation tomorrow.  Hut Vincent is a good man, and a faithful Christian, very humble and appreciative of what we have done for him. Here is the “after” picture, Chris and Chuck with Vincent, holding the replica of the stained glass Ascension Window from Peachtree Presbyterian Church, which we give each homeowner. Happy Vincento

It was a hot day, with the sun blazing intermittently, and Chris and I, along with Ivan and Gato, worked nonstop-without a break. Guzzling water and Gatorade (we call it GATO-rade), we finished the home between 2:00 and 2:30. In the meantime, the team had landed, processed through Passport and Customs, dropped bags at Schoenstaat and grabbed a quick lunch there, before heading out to Daule-just in time to find us enjoying an almost-cool Pilsner, relaxing after a long hard day.

But a good day. It was not what we planned, as we’d expected to have the entire team to help with the build, but as Steinbeck said, “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.” Lord willing, we’ll be back on track tomorrow, building two homes.

Boots on the Ground

June 4, 2014

Today is Wednesday, June 4; as I type, there are eleven men headed south to Guayaquil, Ecuador, who by the time Wednesday turns into Thursday, will all be settled in their beds in Guayaquil, anticipating the first day of our building with Hogar de Cristo this year, This is the seventh year that IRONMEN will partner with this ministry, building simple bamboo homes for some of the poorest of the poor in this country, maybe even this world.

I arrived here last night with Boli Aviles-Alfaro, a former native of this town, whose great-grandfather was once the President of this grand country. Boli and I have been meeting todayImage to make sure all the kinks are worked out for our endeavors, and were comforted to learn from our friend Patty that our two trusted “maestros” Ivan and Gatos will be able to work with us again this year. We will build one home tomorrow, then sometime before Friday’s breakfast, we’ll be divided into two teams and build two homes on Friday, Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday (before catching a red-eye back home Tuesday night.)

We have eyeballed the gas powered augers we will use on each build, assessed the tools we needed, bought tools, copious amounts of water and Gatorade (pronounced GATO-rade for those who work with Gato!) Now it’s time for the men to arrive so we can get to work.

Boli and I did get a chance to have a traditional breakfast this morning at Senora Tere, a long-time Guayaquil eatery, started by and still run by an old family friend of Boli’s. We did not see her today, but did get a visit with Boli’s brother Chom, who lives here and is a great supporter of our work.


Keep us in your prayers–the work will be hard, the weather hot (we’re 2 degrees south of the Equator), but the families deserving and grateful for our contributions. Boli has been fighting a wicked case of sciatica, but by the grace of God it is getting better every day, and he is here, “large and in charge!”

I hope to post updates each evening after our work is done, adding photos of the families we build for. Stay tuned!

This time last week, I was walking through the Atlanta Airport, having flown (and not slept) all night from Guayaquil to Miami, processed through Passport Control and Customs (no problems either spot), boarded the plane in Miami then deplaned and made to change aircraft before finally-FINALLY-making it home.

So many people in the last week have asked, “How was your trip?” my knee-jerk response is “It was great.” And it was. Here is how I explained it to Lib a few years ago when we returned and she was debriefing me: “It’s like this; you take a dozen men, the vast majority of whom are Type-As and control freaks, and you take them to a country where they do not speak the language. You give them a job to do that they don’t know how to do. Sure, we all know how to swing a hammer, but we sure don’t do it all day long for a week, and we certainly do not know how to build one of the homes for Hogar de Cristo. You put a guy in charge of them, who does not speak English. By the end of the second day, nicknames have emerged and inside jokes have formed. At points, guys cannot work because they are laughing so hard, having so much fun despite the really hard work. At other points, guys cannot work, because they are moved speechless and to tears by the reality of the poverty that people are living in, the people we are helping.”

Yesterday, in IRONMEN, five of the guys who went this year helped make a presentation to the larger group about what we did and what it meant to them. They did great, not only in speaking about the work we did, but also about the doors that their work, their facebook posting, etc have opened.

Every year, when we announce the trip and I start recruiting, I employ my “sound byte:” “We’ll work hard, have fun, and change nine families lives for generations.” We do that, certainly the first two of those, and I hope and pray the last. But I’m learning that I need to add a piece to that. It’s not just the lives in Ecuador that are changed-the guys who go down there and work have their lives changed, as well.
I know mine is changed, and I pray it continues to be changed with compassion for the poor, and the determination to do something about it!

Lord willing, we’ll be back next year. I already have guys lining up to go!

The team on the next to the last day of building

The team on the next to the last day of building

Team Gato with OliviaLibia and Geovanny familyWe have come to the conclusion that it is time to come home. Today wore us all out. I’m about 35-40 pounds lighter this year than I was last year, and in much better shape thanks to Randy Nicholson working me out three days a week. But this week of building homes finally caught up with me. About halfway through the build, as we finished bringing the walls up on our home site, I felt fatigue wash over me like an old shirt. Raw nerve and the presence of brothers feeling the same, yet all committed to build the home, kept me going.
When the day was over, the feeling of exhaustion I felt was pretty well pervasive. The sun was out for a part of the day, which contributed to the difficulty, but it was also the cumulative effect of building for five days. The homes, with the stair kits that have been added this year, take about five hours to complete—and that is five hours of solid, hard, heavy, sweaty, hammer-swinging, post-hole digging, wall lifting, work.
Boli separated from us today, as his family from the US is flying to meet him in Quito, and they will all enjoy about ten days in Ecuador. We headed out to the Hogar facility and proceeded to move to work.
Team Ivan had yet another tough build, but also for a very grateful family. Libia Nunez and her husband Geovanny Empuno have five children ranging in ages from 22 (who does not live with them any longer) to 8. Geovanny works for Hogar de Cristo in maintenance, and is also an AC repairman. And trust us, AC is important down here! This family was replacing a Hogar home that they had lived in for ten years.
Team Gato built for Olivia Saltofajardo, a single mother with five children between 14 years and 11 months—and no husband, no man in the picture, and no job. She lives on the government stipend that she receives monthly, which I believe is $50 a month. Olivia, with her older daughters’ help (12 & 14) and the help of a cousin and some neighbors, took her old house apart very early this morning, so that we could build the new home for her family when we arrived. Her older daughters were both in school, were very polite and attentive to their younger siblings, and were quite appreciative of our compliments and work.
But now it is time to return. We are at the airport even now, waiting for our flight home. We leave Guayaquil a little after midnight Atlanta time, arrive in Miami about 5 AM, process through customs, and will finally make it to Atlanta a bit after 9 AM Wednesday.
Those of you with husbands, children, or siblings—or simply good friends—on this trip need to know that these men have been remarkable servants of Jesus Christ, representatives of Peachtree Presbyterian, and indefatigable workers who deserve every accolade you can give them.
They are IRONMEN, true, but more than that, they are friends of Jesus who have made a deep impact—and many friends through their work and their smiles—here in the outlying areas of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Lavish them with love and plenty of rest on their return. They have earned it!

Back to Building

June 11, 2013

Mariana with the teamMichael and Jessica with the teamWe have decided that time flies when you are having fun. Yesterday was a day off from building, and a day to let our bodies as well as our souls recover. We toured some of the downtown Guayaquil area, walked the Riverwalk, saw where Boli’s grandparents lived, enjoyed lunch and swimming at Guayaquil Tennis Club, and did dome simple shopping before having Communion back at Schoenstaat Retreat Center.
This is the seventh year that I have travelled to Ecuador on this Hogar de Cristo Mission trip, the same for Boli Alfaro, and the sixth for Chris Southerland, and others have been on multiple trips—while six of the guys here this week are on their first trip. Regardless, we feel that the trip has passed faster this year than on previous trips.
Maybe the build have been less physically challenging—but do not take that to mean that they have been easy; maybe the family situations have been less heartbreaking—but do not take that to mean they have not been filled with challenges; maybe we have been in better collective physical shape—bug do not take that to mean that we are not worn slap out.
This has been a deeply meaningful trip, a powerful one for us all, as we come face to face with the abject poverty that surrounds us as we work. Each day that we build, when we present the homes to the family, when we give them the replica of the Ascension Window from the Peachtree Presbyterian Sanctuary, we realize that we have been the hands of Jesus, our smile has been the encouragement of God, our presence has represented the Incarnation of the Lord. And that is a humbling reality.
Imagine being a women, who has the privilege of being married and whose husband has made the conscious choice to stay with her, when all around you are women who have no man in the house, who have children by multiple men (all of whom said they would take care of you, but all of whom left for another woman at some point). Imagine trying to care for your children alone.
You sell sausage soup with a friend, while your husband looks for work, doi0ng what he can, whether it is a little or a lot. You make ends meet by selling that soup, and you provide for your family that way. Three times a week, you take your children, 40 minutes each way, to worship and grow in faith at an evangelical church. This is the family unit of Mariana and Micolta, and their three children (between 10 & 17), who Team Ivan built for today. A deeply religious family, and a powerfully grateful one, as well.

Then imagine that you are building a home for a celebrity. Team Gato built a home today for none other than Michael Jackson and his wife Jessica. Seriously, that is his name: Michael Jackson. We saw no moonwalking, but we did see him pitching in to help us move and life walls, build stairs, and care for his family. Michael works as a day laborer essentially, going to “hang out” looking for work much like we in developed cities will see day laborers in certain areas looking for work. Michael has done enough that he can do most anything, and in fact can supervise and direct other workers. When there is work, and when it is good, he can make up to $90 a week. But those weeks are few and far between. The home he and Jessica and their three children (from 3 to 12) live in was literally falling down; it was held up at about a 30 degree angle by several large bamboo poles. Like the previous family, when they received their home it was with a sense of deep pride, and grateful joy.

After our builds today, we cleaned up and dined at the Nato steak house, where collectively we feel as though we ate an entire cow. It’s a bit disturbing, embarrassing, and humbling to think that while we ate more than our fill, the folks we have built for probably will go to bed hungry.
Two more homes to build tomorrow, two more families to fall in love with.
As the piece from “Les Miserables” says, “One Day More!”

Chuck and Joe making presentation to Alfredo and WilmaJoe's presentation to Julian and Tomasa It was another good day’s work.

We left our team leader Boli behind today, giving him a break from the heat and the labor of translation and decision, and the time to get some of his own work done (managing the rest of our trip’s arrangements, etc.) and the two teams headed out to build two homes for another two families. For only the second time in the six years that IRONMEN have been coming to Guayaquil on this trip, the two teams were in sight of each other. In fact, we not only were in sight of each other, we were across the street and one door down from each other!
Yes, this does fuel the competitive fires, but then each home has its own challenges, and when the day is done, we are grateful to hear about the families that we have each built for.
Team Ivan built for Julian and Tomasa and their three children (between 5 and 9 months) today. This family, led by a Dad who works for domestic gate security at the Guayaquil airport, started working yesterday at 6 AM to take down the home they have lived in since 2007, and did not finish until 3:00 AM. Then we all showed up at 9:30, and the team started work to provide them a new home. The kicker was that six of the holes for the support posts had to be cut through 5 inches of concrete, and then the holes managed without an auger, since Hogar de Cristo was locked up, and we could not access spare parts. Yet the team persevered, and at the end of the day, this small family was brimming with pride, and overflowing with joy, at the gift of their new home.
Team Gato built a home for another small family; Alfredo and Wilma and their three children (ranging from 3 months to 9 years old.) this home was built behind the ramshackle bamboo and scrap metal hovel they have been living in. Alfredo has spent many days excavating the bluff their home is on, so the new home would have sufficient space. While that sounds good, what it means is that the team had to work through yards and yards of fill dirt to reach solid ground, and only then begin to drill the holes to build the home. We never got a clear story on whether Alfredo works, but we find it remarkable that in these last two days, we have managed to work with and build for four nuclear families—when for so many years, in so many cases, we have worked for single mothers. When we presented the Ascension Window replica to this family, both mother and father were in tears.
We are blessed to be able and allowed to be the hands of Jesus during this trip, and our hearts are warmed by the fact that people—so many children—respond to our smiles. God truly is good, ALL the time!
That said, we are tired. Shortly we will go out to dinner at a sports bar we found years ago, then come back and crash for the night. Tomorrow is a day off from work; we could use a break before the final 2 days of building!