Irish volunteers come together to build a new community in Haiti

Laura Gallagher works on the roof of a home in Haiti on October 29, 2009, as she joins a group of 267 volunteers from Ireland building 200 homes in th

Irene and Gary Sorohan paint a home in Haiti on October 29, 2009, as they join a group of 267 volunteers from Ireland building 200 homes in the town o

More than 250 volunteers from Ireland are building 200 homes in the town of Quanaminthe, Haiti, as shown on October 29, 2009.

OUANAMINTHE, Haiti - Cillian Twomey is an eminent doctor, a geriatrician in his native Ireland. So what is he doing here, in this bleak, sweltering Haitian border town?
Unstopping toilets, for one. Laying bricks. Working a paintbrush. And paying for the privilege.
"I'm kind of a schizophrenic participant," joked the 62-year-old plumber/painter/bricklayer/
physician. "I am not sure what I am."
Twomey is part of a crew of men and women - 260 strong, all the way from Ireland-who are helping Haitians take destiny into their own hands, by transforming 14 acres of rugged terrain into a cluster of 200 concrete block homes, each with two bedrooms, an open-plan living room, a flushing toilet, a shower and a kitchen.
As Haitian politicians last week fought for power, perfect strangers were helping to change lives 200 miles away in this remote northeast border town. And they were doing it the old-fashioned way: with no heavy machinery, only manual saws, handmade concrete blocks and hand-dug trenches. Several volunteers collapsed from the heat.
"It's back to basics, but everyone is chipping in and pulling together," said Laura Turkington, a corporate responsibility manager who is among the 80 women and 180 men who responded to the pitch across Ireland by Haven, a foundation set up to build houses for Haiti's poor.
The foundation was started by Leslie Buckley, an Irish businessman and vice chairman of Digicel, the largest cell phone company in Haiti.
While not the first to build homes here, Haven's approach is unique: Each of the volunteers had to raise $5,000 toward the project's $1.35 million cost, and instead of living in hotels, they spent the week sleeping on the site. "People were very generous, especially when they realized you were going out yourself to do it," said Niamh Mansfield, a newlywed. She and her husband Derek Kilbride, 35, skipped their honeymoon, opting to travel to Haiti to build houses.
"It's a week of hard work, but to know that a family has been housed after this, is a real sense of satisfaction," she said. "It's unbelievable."
With Ireland enduring one of the worst recessions in Europe, volunteers and Haven staff concede it wasn't easy raising money. They got creative: packing bags at grocery stores, hosting tea parties. Three friends even lived in a "Haven" shack during a weekend festival to raise awareness and money.
Some are between jobs, like 26-year-old Ted Duffy.
"If you can work with your hands, you can help someone," said the unemployed mechanic, who raised money by organizing a tea party, a barbecue and a music night at a local club.
Others run their own companies and charitable efforts, including Irish manufacturer Stephen Grant, who supports developmental efforts on Haiti's southern coast along with a group of Irish entrepreneurs. There are several veteran do-gooders in the group, including 49-year-old Rosaleen Butterly, a mother of four who marked her 12th charitable trip abroad. The oldest volunteer is 70; the youngest, 15.
"It's a real eye opener," said Ciaran Brennan, the 15-year-old. He was here on his midterm break from school.
To prepare for the volunteers' arrival, Haven hired local contractors and construction workers earlier this year to lay the foundation. When volunteers arrived, they found semi-detached homes sprawled out on 14 acres of a hilly terrain in various stages of completion. Some needed painting, others plastering, floors and roofs.
Long after the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, volunteers and Haitian laborers could be seen working side by side. As a crew of Haitian masons pressed cement into concrete blocks by hand, volunteers in red and white T-shirts carried or wheeled the blocks away.
Unable to understand each other, they spoke the universal language of team work.
"It's a very good sign of solidarity from the outside with Haiti, and from within Haiti," said Max Antoine, Haiti's executive director of border development who toured the homes. "This is what we need in this country. People have to learn to live together, build together in order to succeed together."
Antoine, who is hoping to have Haven build 60 new homes in another border community in Haiti's Central Plateau region, said the homes represent hope for people who have long felt neglected by government.
"The situation on the border is very bad. People suffer and anything that can be done to alleviate suffering and poverty is welcomed," he said. "Hopefully, this will allow them to begin to build their lives and contribute to development of their communities."
And that, says Digicel vice chairman Buckley, was the goal when he and his wife, Carmel, decided to form Haven a year ago. With an estimated 10,000 such nongovernmental organizations working in Haiti but few devoted to housing, Buckley said he wanted to give Haitians something they needed most, "something we take for granted. A place they can call home."
In Ireland, he and his team launched a marketing blitz, asking for volunteers in radio and bus shelter ads.
They held informational sessions throughout the island. One of his top lieutenants dropped in on construction sites during lunch breaks, standing on crates as he encouraged workers to join the effort. The message was simple: A life-changing experience awaited those willing to make the trip.
In Haiti, Buckley worked with a local school principal, who told him about the 14 acres. They also worked with the community to identify families most in need. All have received training on how to maintain a house, especially a toilet, which some are seeing for the first time.
Each homeowner will pay the equivalent of $2 a month for five years, so that the effort is not viewed as a handout. After that they will be owners.
"The Haven project will succeed if others get involved," said Jean-Maurice Buteau, a Haitian mango exporter who traveled with the group from Dublin. "We can't expect them to do it all. They provided the houses. Who's going to do the rest?"
The goal, Buckley says, is to build 1,000 new homes and refurbish 2,000 - at a cost of $11.7 million over five years. He has insisted that all be in remote regions of the country, and that income-generating development activities be added to help sustain the new communities.
"If you go to Ouanaminthe, you see the school, the houses. Hopefully, in five years' time, this will be an example," Buckley said.
There is still one thing that Buckley laments: Despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars his foundation is pouring into the project, he could not get the Haitian government to build access roads inside the development - or even put in sewers or run power lines. Even getting clear title to the land took some maneuvering.
It's the people of Haiti, Buckley said, who keep his vision going. People like Susane Lucien, 50, a mother of seven, who has a perfect view of the new community from the front yard of her one-room mud shack.
"I didn't think I can afford a house, but now I feel like anything is possible," she said. "I feel if God can help me get a house, than anything is possible."