Building Goodness

Building Goodness

By Ken Wilson – Jack Horn loves to build and he loves to travel. A couple of weeks after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated much of Haiti in January of 2010, Horn, the CEO of the Charlottesville contracting firm Martin Horn, Inc., found himself on a mountainside overlooking Port-au-Prince. He was in the country with Building Goodness Foundation (BGF), the Charlottesville non-profit with a mission to build community and improve lives by connecting skilled volunteers from the design and construction industries with high-impact non-profits in need of new or renovated space.

“We’d spent a couple days down there inspecting some of the buildings we’d already built,” Horn remembers, “to make sure they weren’t damaged.” Now it was time to check on a church built by the father of Leon Pamphile, their Haitian-born guide. It was late afternoon and Horn’s party had struggled up a road torn up by the earthquake, walking the last part of the way.

On top of the slope, Horn says, with a sunset gilding the sky, “we had this unbelievable view of Port-au-Prince. This church had been totally destroyed. Leon had helped build it when he was a little kid, and this was the first time he’d seen it since the earthquake, and he was pretty emotional. We stood around in a circle, and I’m not a religious person at all, but we held hands and we said a prayer and sang a little Creole hymn that he taught us. it was one of those things that you sort of say to yourself, ‘One day maybe I’ll get a chance to come back and build this church back.’ And then we did, and it was pretty cool.”

That moment in Haiti is one of Horn’s favorites from his trips with Building Goodness, and he has a satchel full of them. Horn made 25 trips to Mississippi alone over a two-year period, shepherding his first BGF project, a community center, to completion after Katrina blew through in 2005. It’s that sort of dedication on the part of numerous volunteers—350 to 400 annually—that has made possible projects with 42 non-profits in Central Virginia, and the construction of more than 20 schools, medical clinics, and community centers in six developing countries in the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa.

It has built the Camille Voltaire Women’s Health Clinic & Birthing Center, significantly reducing maternal and infant mortality in the mountains of rural Haiti. It has built the Osaverde Green Classroom on the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica, assisting students and researchers from around the world in their study of agro-ecology, biodiversity conservation and sustainable agriculture. And it is constructing much of the Playscape—a children’s play area with imaginative features like a log obstacle course, a giant oak salamander for climbing, and an art house—set on 28 acres of undeveloped land in Crozet, giving families and other community members in this techno-distracted age a lovely park in which to play, bond and experience the natural world.

“The construction industry in the Charlottesville area is known for quality home and commercial construction,” says BGF Executive Director Kelly Eplee. “Building Goodness Foundation has grown out of this community of builders into a remarkable non-profit which channels the design and construction skill of professional volunteers into high-quality non-profit building and renovation work. This is a unique aspect of BGF—over 80% of the volunteers on BGF sites are trade professionals, translating to an extremely high quality product.”

“We are committed to building with non-profit organizations which provide safety-net services like education, healthcare, and shelter, whether that’s in Central Virginia or in a developing country like Haiti or Nicaragua. When we help a partner non-profit expand their capacity to serve others, we are indirectly serving every single person they help. We’re proud to help other non-profits expand their reach and better fulfill their mission by building with and for them.”

Sharing as it does the UN goal of “ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all,” BGF  builds healthcare facilities such as women’s clinics, health clinics, and birthing centers for non-

profits in vulnerable and underserved communities. Believing with the UN that “obtaining a quality education is the foundation to improving people’s lives,” it builds critically-needed schools and centers to educate children and adults and prepare community members for leadership. Desiring, like the U.N., “to build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations, and reduce their vulnerability to climate-related events and other economic, social, and environmental shocks and disasters,” it constructs and repairs housing for low-income individuals in the U.S. and Haiti.

Agreeing with the U.N., “that sustainable economic growth will require jobs that stimulate the economy while not harming the environment, and that job opportunities and decent working conditions are required for the whole working age population,” BGF is strongly committed to “operating thoughtfully and responsibly.” That entails employing local workers for projects outside the U.S. (their wages have a ripple effect throughout their communities), providing lunch for those workers, using local materials whenever possible, and choosing projects which explicitly support economic growth, like a reforestation program in Haiti to make subsistence farming more productive and profitable.

When choosing among the many applications for partnership it receives, Horn says, “We want a project that’s going to be enduring, and we want a non-profit that’s going to be able to support the building after it’s finished. There has to be some sort of funding in place, or something that we can fund somehow. It has to support a community operation of some sort—things like clinics and schools and churches. It has to be something that’s volunteer friendly and accessible,  so you can fly from Charlottesville to there in a day and work for a week and fly back.”

“The thing that gets in the way a lot of times Is funding. A lot of people want to do a lot of things, and we have a lot of projects that we really like, but finding funding for these types of projects is challenging. So oftentimes we’ll have a bunch of them cued up and I’ll be working on funding, and the one that either we or they can raise money for is the one that we will move ahead next.” Two projects currently waiting on full funding are Bridges to Community Hormiguero Clinic, which provides medical care in remote notheastern Nicaragua, and the English in Mind Institute in Haiti, a non-profit, adult English program in Port-au-Prince. (More information about projects currently in need of funding, and about ways to help fund them, is available at

Ti Kays
All Building Goodness structures are eco-friendly and eco-sustainable. A good example are the earthquake-resistant ti kays (Creole for small houses) built to permanently house Haitians left homeless by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.  Because it was already working in the eastern part of the country, BGF was well placed to identify and aid the neediest families in Destra, Gressier, Leogane, and Croix de Bouquets and other hard hit communities, supplying them with 12′ x 16′ structures, with 4′ porches out front, looking much like traditional Haitian homes.

Some 600 ti kays have been built already, at a pace of about 150 a year now, often replacing flimsy wood-framed structures with only tarps for walls and metal sheets for roofs. “All of our designs, not just the ti kays, incorporate instructions from structural engineers that make them hurricane- and earthquake-resistant,” says BGF Director of Projects Ethan Tate. “Technically speaking, the plywood walls and high-quality fasteners provide shear strength that allow the structure to wiggle but not collapse. This, coupled with a wood truss roof (as opposed to the more common concrete slab roof), makes the house quite stable when the earth moves. We looked at what design elements contributed to so many failures after the 2010 earthquake and tried to avoid those whenever possible.”

In another Haitian project called Incentive Kays, residents earn 12′ x 20′ kays by taking such environmentally beneficial and community strengthening measures as planting trees, gardens, and erosion-controlling hedgerows, installing water cisterns and tending fish hatcheries, and sending their kids to school. Each family plants an average of 50,000 trees—yes, 50,000 trees!—to earn a kay; thirty-two have received them so far.

Building Goodness in April and Autumn
Here at home, the Building Goodness in April and Autumn (BGiA) offers home repairs to low-income, elderly, and disabled homeowners in Charlottesville, as well as renovations to qualified local non-profits. This bi-annual one-day building blitz is a partnership with students of UVA’s Darden Graduate School of Business, who manage it along with BGF staff, selecting the projects, raising the necessary funds, and coordinating with suppliers, agencies and construction volunteers. The first autumn project took place in September 2008, when BGF partnered with Camp Holiday Trails (a caring community for children with special medical needs and autism/social-communicative challenges) to renovate ten cabin bathrooms, making them handicapped accessible. Since then BGiA volunteers have built lodges, bathrooms, a pole barn, and a fully accessible treehouse area, and have replaced decking and siding.

“Building Goodness is one of our strongest partners,” says camp executive Director Tina LaRoche. “We have great mutual admiration for each other’s work and we try to help them when we can as well, so it’s really not just that we’re a recipient. We really try to be a true partner with them. They’ve just been great to work with.”

The next BGiA Build Day is April 8th, 2017, and will take place at eight sites around Charlottesville. Work to be done includes small kitchen and bathroom renovations, landscaping, painting, and drywall work. BGF’s skilled volunteer contractors will help determine each site’s needs, and will lead the work. Darden students will do the bulk of the fundraising, and will provide volunteers to do much of the heavy lifting on each work site.

Giving Back
“We’re very fortunate to live in Charlottesville,” Horn says. “It’s a great community with a very robust economy. Our business has been very lucky to have all the things we have here; so then to take your skills somewhere else where people are in need of things feels like the right thing to do.”

It is more blessed to give than to receive, it has been said, and to hear Horn tell it, it’s life changing too. “The whole thing about my experience,” Horn reflects, remembering that moving scene above Port-au-Prince, “is that every time you get to go down there people have what we call transformational experiences. People who have been in the States and been carpenters their whole life and have taken their skills for granted have gone down there and gotten to work and realized how much it means to be in a situation where you can give back. A lot of people come back from those trips changed in some way. That’s pretty typical we find, and one of the things that we value the most about our organization is providing that.”

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