Village People

Two years ago, Charlottesville carpenter Louise Finger packed her tool belt and sized up a new project. She put aside her usual routine of building swanky homes for Central Virginia’s well-to-do and embarked on what she says is a more rewarding path: constructing no-frills public structures for communities in need.

Ilove that kind of work, but day after day of building high-end homes for people who already have another home wasn’t very fulfilling,” Finger says. “Building a medical clinic for a community that doesn’t have one is more valuable to me than building something else for lots of money.”

With that attitude in mind, two years ago Finger flew to Fort Liberté, Haiti, and spent 10 days lending her craftsmanship to an ongoing medical clinic project. She worked with more than two dozen Haitian laborers hauling loads of concrete in a bucket brigade, looking for lumber in a fairly desolate land, and bending and reusing nails due to the lack of available resources. She loved it, and in the end felt that she had used her skills to produce something desperately needed. That’s the whole design of Building Goodness.

Officially incorporated in 1999, the Building Goodness Foundation assists community-based construction projects in Third World countries by providing planning and implementation services, as well as on-site expertise. Founded by a group of Charlottesville builders eager to give back, local contractors, craftsmen and surveyors now put their years of experience building high-end houses in neighborhoods like Farmington and Glenmore toward figuring out how to build a hillside school in a remote part of, say, Guatemala. And in addition to five current projects in two different countries, the group has finally started to bring those lessons back home by helping Charlottesville’s needy as well.

 

The idea for Building Goodness came, in part, from Jack Stoner, a founding partner of construction firm Alexander Nicholson. Stoner was doing well for himself in the late ’90s. His business worked on more than $60 million worth of construction projects in the past 20 years, including such community landmarks as Kegler’s, the massive ACAC facility at Albemarle Square and the new Catholic school on Rio Road. His firm also works on ritzy houses in some of the area’s most elite subdivisions; clients come to Alexander Nicholson with money, they make it happen.

It was lucrative, but it wasn’t enough. “You reach a point in your life where you say, ‘Is this the point of my existence?’” Stoner explains.

But growing dissatisfaction didn’t immediately lead to a new way of life for Stoner. Six years ago, Lawson Drinkard—a former partner in the influential VMDO architectural firm and a one-time director of the Virginia Student Aid Foundation—asked Stoner to join him on a mission trip to Haiti. Stoner initially declined due to a heavy project load at Alexander Nicholson, but once the projects fell through or were put on hold, Stoner was on a plane heading toward perhaps the most desolate country in the Western hemisphere.

Stoner was dumbfounded by what he found. A near total lack of stability and infrastructure was further starving an already famished country. Charities with good intentions and funding struggled to turn the tide amid limited local resources and facilities.

“There aren’t any general contractors in these areas,” Stoner says.

Upon returning to the United States, Stoner was visited by the big idea: Send teams of Charlottesville contractors to Haiti to build a compound in L’Acul for one of these charities, Haiti Fund—a network of churches and private individuals across the United States that sponsored certain communities on the island nation.

Alexander Nicholson was one of the initial firms to sponsor its employees for the project, paying to send a group to the island and maintaining their wages while there. It went so well—and, according to Stoner, built morale and pride among Alexander Nicholson’s crew—that like-minded contractors decided to charter an organization to make further projects a reality. Other contracting firms that participated in individual projects include Ace Contracting, Inc., Greer & Associates, Central Virginia Waterproofing, Safeway Electric and Sugar Hollow Builders.

“Most people seemed to think they got more out of it than they put into it,” Stoner says.

The positive reactions encouraged him to take the idea and turn it into Building Goodness. With a focus on building structures for the general community, the group works with charities that pay for the materials and organize on-site manpower, while Building Goodness and its member firms provide planning, implementation and on-site expertise.

Stoner has been pleasantly surprised by the willingness to get involved by members of the Charlottesville community. There are lessons to be learned from other communities, he says, as well as ideas about community that can be exported abroad.

“There’s a sense of community in Haiti where if you have a bowl of rice, you’re going to share it,” he says. “But there’s not a great sense of community on the political level as far as being able to band together to improve something.”

Stoner banded together with a friend and former religious adviser to improve Building Goodness. He asked Jay Sanderford, an ordained Presbyterian minister and former youth minister at the First Presbyterian Church on Park Street, to come on as executive director of the foundation after he returned to town in 1999.

Now, Sanderford says, “I don’t have a congregation, but I have lots of partners in building an organization from the ground up. So that’s a pretty exciting challenge.” Long-term, the foundation hopes to export its plan and form satellite groups in other communities, although the local chapter is the only one in operation so far.

Sanderford spends most of his time developing the organization by seeking donors and interested and craftsmen for future trips. Area donors like Mountain Lumber, Monarch Concrete and L&D Association Plumbing help to fund the group’s $125,000 budget, while a string of suppliers, like Better Living, Gaston & Wyatt, and H.T. Ferron Concrete Suppliers, that the builders deal with in their regular line of work provide supplies and logistical assistance for work sites.

Sanderford also writes grants for individual projects and helps organize trips. Since its founding, as many as 50 people have participated in one or more of 19 total trips to Haiti, Guatemala, Bolivia and Nicaragua; so far the group has concentrated on works in Central and South America and the Caribbean since those areas are more cost-effective and accessible than other global locales. Sanderford estimates that a total of 150 people have been involved in some way or keep in touch with the group’s progress.

 

Enoch Snyder became heavily involved with the group. Snyder grew up around missionaries in a small town in eastern West Virginia. In high school, he took an exchange trip to Costa Rica. Little surprise, then, when he threw himself headlong into helping to develop Building Goodness shortly after taking a job as a project manager at Alexander Nicholson.

Snyder’s main contribution to the foundation has been advance scouting. So far, the project manager has taken six trips to four countries (Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Bolivia), and plans to lead another trip to Guatemala in January. Unlike many of the craftsmen who travel under the Building Goodness banner, Snyder doesn’t always have a group project on his plate. In Bolivia, for example, Snyder performed consulting work for another group building a hospital for Mission of Hope, Bolivia, a Charlottesville-based religious non-profit..

Scouting projects is a natural extension of his job in Charlottesville, but Snyder says that monitoring the intricate details of stateside projects pales compared to the logistical nightmares of building even simple structures abroad; there are no Allied Concrete trucks backing up to work sites in Haiti, for instance. For that reason, Building Goodness has on occasion turned down solicitations from charities they deem to be disorganized or naive.

“We’ll feel them out by asking things like, ‘What’s your 10-year plan?’” Snyder says.

But while planning out and executing projects can be difficult and time-consuming—combined, Snyder spends a full month a year traveling, meeting, planning and designing just for Building Goodness—he says the reward is great in the human sense.

“Clients around here will thank you, but their expectations are so high that it can be hard to please them,” he says. “Then you can go to Guatemala for a week to work on a school building and be overwhelmed by the peoples’ response.”

Project managers aren’t the only ones who benefit from this interaction; the craftsmen reap the biggest benefits from the exchange.

“Carpentry skills aren’t really valued here. Carpenters are kind of second-class citizens behind doctors and lawyers, for instance,” Snyder says. “But if you go to a Third World country, you’re at the top of the food chain if you can work well with your hands. These craftsmen come back with a whole new perspective on their lives.”

But Building Goodness doesn’t just go to a community to look for what it feels is a problem and then try to fix it. Rather, Snyder says the group typically waits for a community or a charity to come forward with an identified need, one that can be met by a mixing of American expertise and local elbow grease.

“We like to enlist a lot of community labor because of the obvious benefits to the process,” he says.

Sometimes, identified needs can come as a complete surprise to a visiting American. For example, Snyder recalls a project the foundation did in a bayside town in Haiti. The town was built on top of a hill; at the base was its water supply and the home of an elderly woman regarded as a community leader. When the Building Goodness team arrived, the Haitians informed them that they preferred the group construct a set of concrete steps linking the two locales. They put away ideas of grander construction and helped the locals build their vision.

Snyder says his experiences have helped him to not be blind to other cultures. “You are the same person, in better circumstances, than the people you meet over there,” he says.

 

Carpenter Louise Finger learned that lesson during her time working with Building Goodness in Haiti, and more. For her it was a life-changing experience, she says—not just in some abstract, spiritual sense, but in how she lives her day-to-day life.

After returning from Haiti, Finger revamped her priorities. She no longer does contract work and is only a part-time carpenter. Instead, Finger works part-time for the Department of Forestry in the stream-restoration field.

“I probably do more carpentry work for charity than I do for income,” she says.

While the Haiti experience left her thirsting for more opportunities to use her skills to serve others in need, these days Finger donates her time and expertise to local projects. Whereas Building Goodness’ overseas projects advance slowly and take lots of planning, Finger can organize and get a project going around here with minimal planning and expense. Some of her opportunities have come through organizations like Habitat for Humanity, but others stem from Building Goodness’ budding local projects team.

That local program may work to placate skeptics who argue that while Building Goodness’ overseas projects fill a need, there are plenty of people in and around Charlottesville who could use a community center or better medical facilities, too. And while the organization has yet to work on any major public facilities in the area, it is starting to make its presence known through private works.

One such local project in late October led Finger and five other Building Goodness members to a house in North Garden that was in desperate need of attention. The Albemarle Housing Improvement Program (one of the organizations Building Goodness has worked with locally, as well as the Jefferson Area Board on Aging and Christmas in April) had the house in mind for a renovation but couldn’t get the approvals lined up. “We weren’t constrained by their funding limitations,” Finger says.

The result: The local craftsmen ripped off the house’s porch, replaced all 12 windows, and poured and placed a cement stoop to help the older woman who lived there come and go more easily. Not bad for a Saturday.

“We could do a lot around here in one day if we had six to eight people who would dedicate their days,” she says. Sanderford says the group has done three such monthly projects, called craft service days, in which Building Goodness rehabilitates dilapidated private homes referred to them by community agencies. The most recent craft service day occurred on November 23 in the Greenwood community. The local approach will be a growing part of the Building Goodness strategy—thus closing the circle on Stoner’s initial idea with benefits being felt right here in our backyard.

Finger says Charlottesville tends to have an excellent sense of community, but that the area’s residents have to guard against facets of their lifestyle that can tear down that mutual caring.

“All in all, it’s a wealthy area,” she says. “With wealth, I think we tend to let go of the importance of depending on others, or looking out for others. You’re less likely to call out to others for help and support, which in turn can make you less mindful of others’ needs.”

But for Finger anyway, her Haiti experience has created a new community here for her—one of friends from different backgrounds whom she might never have met otherwise.

“I didn’t know a soul, and now I’ve met some of the coolest people,” she says. “I’ve definitely made some great friends.”

Yes, he says finally. That will work.

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