Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 11, 2008
Sticks and Stones builds homes for El Salvador’s poor
Local contractor’s skills transforms a village and peoples’ lives
By RAMON GONZALEZ
“The women have been empowered and are raising funds to build houses.”
“The minute I started doing this, I stopped chasing the dollar,” Keogh smiled. “I can’t put a dollar in the bank knowing there are people who need it.”
He spends three months in Chacarita each time and builds an average of three houses during each stay. Houses are 7x6 meters, plus a porch, and are made of cement blocks reinforced with steel bars so they can withstand earthquakes. He uses zinc aluminum for the roof because it reflects the heat and keeps the house cool. Houses are open inside, without any divisions. People request them this way so they can stack as many beds as possible. If they need divisions, they use curtains. Families have an average of six kids and need all the space they can muster.
The only prerequisite to get a house is that a person must be the “poorest of the poor” and have nobody outside the country that can send them help, Keogh said. “Apart from that, anybody who needs a house will get one.” Most people qualify for a house because coffee-pickers in Chacarita only make $2.50 per day.
Joe Wysocki and
“The village has changed since (we started building houses),” Keogh said. “The women have been empowered and are raising funds to build houses.”
Keogh, 56, is currently working with a group of women who sold cows to raise cash to build houses. Their collection was matched by an international women’s organization and became enough to build 15 houses. “My biggest reward is seeing the transformation of the community.”
It takes about 16 days for Keogh and company to build a house. He works with a four-member local crew and always adds a young trainee to the crew to teach him the trade. He has trained so many farmers in the art of house building over the years that some of them have virtually changed careers and become homebuilders. Families also help with the building of their own homes.
Keogh is able to install electricity in some of the houses, but most of the people in Chacarita still use candles to light their quarters. Running water is out of the question. Families have to walk long distances to go to the local tap to get drinking water. “But one day I’ll put water,” Keogh vowed.
“I come back broke every time.”
He has no problem relating to the poor of Chacarita because he grew up poor himself. “I grew up in Quebec on a farm — very, very poor,” he related. “We had no running water, no heat (except for the heat from the wooden oven).”
Despite that, his parents were charitable and would bring hobos from the street, clean them up, feed them and allow them to sleep on the couch.
For the first three years, Keogh paid for everything out of his own pocket. The community would pick the family who needed a house built and he would buy the materials. But that changed in 2003 when he went to install a furnace at the Castledowns home of retired teacher Joe Wysocki. He spoke with Wysocki about the project and Wysocki immediate became interested.
In time, Wysocki became the project’s financier and since 2003 he has donated up to $15,000 out of his own pocket for the project and other relief work. He’s also recruited donors at his parish—the Exaltation of the Holy Cross Ukrainian Catholic Parish.
In 2005, following a volcano eruption, 67,000 people became displaced in El Salvador, mainly because of massive mudslides caused by heavy rains. Told of the emergency, Wysocki sent Keogh $7,000—originally destined for housing—to help provide food and basic utensils for 1,500 people who were sheltering at two schools in Armania and at a sugar cane factory in San Isidro.
- photo supplied
Stephen Keogh digs the trench for yet another home financed by Sticks and Stones.
In 2006, Keogh and Wysocki decided to make their “private” project in Chacarita a public venture by setting up a not-for-profit company called Sticks & Stones Community Development. It’s through this organization that now Keogh and Wysocki raise most of the funds for their housing project.
Still Keogh spends up to $10,000 of his own money every time he travels to El Salvador. “I come back broke every time,” he laughs. “But God gives me back more every time.”
Keogh has become somewhat of a celebrity in Chacarita because in addition to building houses, he also plays guitar and sings and gives free hugs to everyone. He also gives toys to the children.
For Christmas last year, Sticks & Stones sent toys to Chacaritas for 200 children. Keogh actually drove 7,000 kilometers to Chacaritas in his 1996 Grand Am car to deliver the toys himself. It took him seven days.
In the beginning, it was difficult for Wysocki to get donations. But one day he offered to match donations dollar per dollar and donations started to come in. People like Don Crawford of Crawford Homes in Hay Lakes and his wife donated enough to build two houses. George and Monica Williams from Spruce Grove donated $10,000, enough to build three houses.
Wysocki is happy with the outcome but would like more people to get involved so Sticks and Stones can increase the number of houses for families living in substandard shelter. What they need most is money for materials. Those who want to go to El Salvador as volunteers and are willing to pay for their own trip are also welcome.
Wysocki can’t travel for health reasons but Keogh is his hands, eyes and ears. Keogh actually reports to Wysocki regularly so that Wysocki can report to donors.
Now Keogh, a father of six, is teaching two of his sons to be charitable with the poor of El Salvador. Part of the profits of their company—Rain-A-Way Systems—goes automatically to build houses in Chacarita each year.
When will he stop?
“Never,” he replied. “I’ll keep doing this till the moment I die. I do this as an example for my kids.”
For more on the project go to www.sticks-and-stones.org or contact Stephen Keogh 780-904-5802 or Joseph Wysocki at 780-456-0986.
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