Building A Home In Haiti, John Marsh Gives -- And Gets -- An Education

By: Alan Pollock

John Marsh (rear center) and the other members of his building team. COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM Volunteering with a nonprofit group, Chatham contractor John Marsh recently traveled to Haiti to build a simple home for a needy family and to share modern construction tips with local builders. But by the end of the adventure, he knew that he was the one who'd received the education.

“I'm not a world traveler,” said 34-year-old Marsh. A manager with Eastward Homes, the family business, he admittedly went outside his comfort zone by agreeing to the trip. Marsh underwent a host of vaccinations and took anti-malarial medicine, then climbed aboard a plane – not his favorite mode of travel – bound for Port-au-Prince. Working with the Be Like Brit Foundation and staying in a local orphanage, Marsh and his fellow volunteers spent several days building a home in Grand Goâve, about two hours outside the capital.

“I say 'home' as a very loose term,” he said. Built on a concrete slab, the 16-by-14-foot building might pass as a garden shed back home. With simple framing, plywood sides and a corrugated metal roof, the building has just two rooms: a small living room and a single bedroom where the whole family sleeps. The tiny house is simple, functional, and by far the best structure in the squalid neighborhood.

To the grateful new residents, “it's the Taj Mahal,” Marsh said.

Though it might have taken a few hours at home, the job took several days to complete in rural Grand Goâve, which was 90 percent destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. Perched on a hillside reachable only by walking path, the site has no electricity or sanitation. With a few exceptions, power tools were out.

“The entire house is hand-nailed,” Marsh said. He spent much of his time lugging materials to the site, reminding him of the “grunt work” he carried out when he started working for his father's business. “I revisited every phase of my childhood,” he quipped.

Marsh and his colleagues – volunteers from the Salem Five Cents Savings Bank – worked alongside local builders.

“These guys do not stop,” he said. With temperatures soaring to 98 degrees in the shade, the Haitian builders worked with hardly a break. Marsh was able to share a few tips, like cutting all of the wall studs to length at once, rather than one at a time, to speed up the process. Most of the time, Marsh and the other “blancs” were a source of entertainment for the neighbors, who turned out in force to watch the project.

“They're always smiling,” he said. “But the poverty they live in is indescribable.” Most of the homes in the neighborhood have holey tarps for roofs, making for miserable conditions in the regular heavy rainstorms.

Marsh admits he worries what the neighborhood looks like now, following the passage of powerful Hurricane Matthew early this week. Flattened by an earthquake, the town is just as susceptible to hurricanes and mudslides.

“A lot of those shelters are not going to be there,” he said. As of Monday, Grand Goâve was expected to receive some of the highest winds from the hurricane.

Marsh found inspiration not only in the people of the city, but in the story of the Be Like Brit Foundation. When the earthquake struck in January, 2010, 19-year-old college student Britney Gengel was working with orphans in Haiti when she was trapped in a building and perished. Shortly before the devastating quake struck, she sent a simple text message to her parents.

“They love us so much and everyone is so happy. They love what they have and they work so hard to get nowhere, yet they are all so appreciative. I want to move here and start an orphanage myself,” she wrote. It was to be her last message. In Britney's honor, her parents raised funds to build a modern orphanage in Haiti, home to 66 youngsters – one for each hour their daughter was trapped in the rubble. The program also hosts volunteers like Marsh who come to help rebuild the community.

Still, volunteers face the knowledge that, for every family they help, there are countless others who go without, struggling to meet basic needs of health, safety and sanitation. But Marsh is undaunted.

“It makes you want to do more,” he said. Despite the hardships (“Fire ants are not fun,” he noted), Marsh is genuinely excited to return, possibly in the spring. The trip cost him about $1,000, and he encourages anyone who's interested in taking part to call him at Eastward Homes to learn more, or to visit www.BeLikeBrit.org. No experience is necessary; his volunteer team included bankers and a restaurant general manager.

“I would recommend it to anyone I know, even if you're not a builder,” he said.