Volunteer work in El Salvador

by Bill Secord (January 2012)

I returned this week from El Salvador with a team of volunteers from the Upper Valley after we had completed the construction of a housing unit for a family of six in the village of San Jose Villanueva. Working in conjunction with Epilogos, a nonprofit charity headquartered in Nashua, New Hampshire, our team of eight people constructed a 900-square-foot cinderblock home from scratch. We worked under the leadership of a local foreman who has helped construct eighty of these homes in rural terrain using only a tape measure and a plumb-bob. The team used a construction technique developed by Epilogos for volunteer workers. The process consists of erecting steel girders in eighteen-inch postholes filled with cement and then sliding cinderblocks into slots on each side of the girders. The trick is to get the top blocks inserted without getting the people working on the top of the wall killed.

The climate of El Salvador precludes any necessity to build below the frost line and allows for an open floor plan that fits a patio lifestyle. Only the two bedrooms are fully walled in, although the whole unit is covered by a corrugated tin roof. The roof will be installed by a local team with welding capability. All the building supplies, including seven huge barrels of water, were trucked in before the team arrived. Water is a scarce and expensive commodity. No power machinery is available. We hauled the cinderblocks up to the top of the girders using a block and tackle and a twenty-five-foot tripod, and we mixed cement by hand on the hard-packed earth—no wheelbarrows, just buckets. The cement filled in the gaps between the cinderblocks and completed the base of the thirty-by-thirty-foot floor—different mixtures for different functions.

The most satisfying part of the whole effort was working side by side with members of the family. All four children, aged from ten to two years old helped. The mother was the one really in charge, and of course had some “change orders” throughout the process. The completed building will have electricity brought in but no running water. A latrine still has to be built. We accomplished more than the Epilogos coordinator had expected (especially for a team comprised of so many “older” members), but were not able to get to the construction of two latrines in the area. Mike and Susie Jenkins, former Peace Corps members and former New Hampshire residents, are the on-site coordinators for Epilogos. They hope that further teams from the Upper Valley will continue volunteer work in San Jose Villanueva.

The exciting aspects of the trip included a very large rattlesnake, two very small scorpions, and a flea-eating poisonous spider that has venom that will kill a human being in five minutes. The only real catastrophe was my passing out from dehydration despite continually drinking Gatorade. The house we stayed in after the day’s work was located directly on the Pacific Ocean. The small compound is owned by Bill Sahlman, president of the Lebanon-Riverside Rotary Club and a Lebanon real estate agent. Unfortunately, the surf and undertow in front of the beach house were so bad that I went swimming only twice. I’m still getting sand out of various pieces of clothing. We saw some Mayan ruins, visited a volcanic lake, and killed a chicken with our ford Explorer. The authorities still let us out of the country.

The Perez family, whose house in El Salvador was built by volunteers from Vermont and New Hampshire