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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Habitat Trip

Last weekend, we attended a birthday party for one of our friends' daughter, Annabella.  She was a lovely young lady celebrating her 6th birthday.  Now it's my turn.  Today is the 6th anniversary of the stem cell transplant that gave me my new immune system!   I call it my "second birthday".  Happy Birthday to me!  (I've decided to forego the cake and candles.)  Since that day, my new immune system has served me very well.  Today I was at Dana Farber and got confirmation that I am still in remission from my Multiple Myeloma.  I am a very lucky man.

Team Epic for Bill
One of the reasons that I am doing so well is because of the extensive research conducted on finding a cure for MM.  The Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) has been instrumental in bringing many new therapies to bear on MM.  Two years ago, my daughter-in-law, Pam, started "Team Epic for Bill" as a fundraiser for the MMRF Team for Cures 5K Run/Walk event in Boston.  We were fortunate to raise over $10,000 each year, and it has been a wonderful event.  This year, we are raising funds again for this event, which will be held at Carson Beach, South Boston on April 29, 2018.  I invite you to come run or walk with us that day.  If not, I would appreciate any donation you could make to this worthy cause.  Please check out my website at  Thank you in advance.

As you probably know, I have been volunteering with the Merrimack Valley Habitat for Humanity (MVHFH) In Lawrence, MA for the past 3 years or so.  So far, I've been involved in four building projects, most recently on new duplex housing for low-income families.  It has been very rewarding, as well as a great learning experience.  I have worked on various aspects of house construction, from framing to flooring to sheetrock installation and mudding to insulating to vinyl siding to painting, and finally, to plumbing.  For the last year, I have been mostly doing PVC drains and vents, water and heating components, and especially heat and hot water boiler installations.  It's kind of amusing that I am now pigeon-holed as a "plumber", since plumbing was one of the things I hated the most when working on my own house!  Go figure.  Anyway, I'm having fun.

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege to visit the Dominican Republic for a week with some of my compatriots from the MVHFH to help build houses in that country.  We spent Saturday night in the capital, Santo Domingo, and then took an interesting walking tour of the Old Town the next morning.

Group picture in Santo Domingo
We then took a 4-hour bus ride (driven by a kamikaze driver with a death wish) west of the capital to San Juan de la Maguana, which was out base of operations for the next 5 days.  Those in the front of the bus compared it to a theme park thrill ride.  I was in the back, so I tried to sleep.

Ready to load the mixer
Monday we visited a cement factory, where we spent the day building concrete slabs, which serve as wall components for many of the low-income houses that are built there.  As you can see from the picture, Randy and I were hard at work shoveling sand and gravel into the cement mixer.  That was my job for the day.  Actually, this picture was taken before we even started, which may explain why I'm smiling.  It was hard but satisfying work.

The building process is interesting.  Most of the Habitat houses are only about 800-900 square feet with 3 or 4 small rooms. House walls are constructed from these pre-formed concrete slabs, which are slid into aluminum upright channels to hold them in place.  Once the concrete foundation is poured, it only takes a day or two to complete the walls.  The roofs of these minimal houses are usually metal.

Peter ready to shovel concrete
Tuesday was our hardest day, which involved pouring a concrete roof on a cinder block house.  This process was amazing.  The concrete was mixed on the ground and then poured onto a wooden slab.  Two people then shoveled it up to an intermediate platform, and from there, it was shoveled up into a wheelbarrow to distribute it to the roof.  This picture shows Peter, one of our volunteers, bravely about to take a turn shoveling.  A few of our stronger guys did this duty for about 5-10 minutes or so, but the local laborers were amazing in their ability to do this work almost all day.  I was very impressed with how hard these local laborers worked and for very minimal wages.  As for me, I stayed on the ground and shoveled sand into buckets to keep feeding the cement mixer.  I found that to be hard enough.

House before we started
The next day we spent building a concrete floor for a small house.  Here is the before picture of this shabby dwelling.  We had to remove all the items before starting, which included a chicken nesting her eggs in a corner with a rat behind her.

The family included 3-4 generations living in two small units.  Rosa, the matriarch was well into her 80s, while the youngest children were grade school age.
House when we finished
Pouring of the floor took all day, although it took a while to get started.  We didn't have a close source of water to mix the concrete, so they had to take a truck with a water barrel about 5 miles away where there was a river, and used buckets to fill the barrel from the river.

The Dominican laborers were very good at installing and smoothing the concrete floor, and it looked great when it was done.  The next day, we split the group up.  One group went to another house to pour a floor, and I stayed at this house to paint the inside.  It would have been great to have a paint sprayer, as the concrete walls were rough and full of holes and gaps, but we did the best we could with rollers and brushes.  Anyway, the place looked pretty nice when we were finished.

Rosa and me
The family was very grateful for the work that we did.  This was a family in what we would call extreme poverty, but they seemed to be happy and healthy.  I'm not sure how they survive in these conditions, but they do.  We bought the family new mattresses to replace the old ones you can see in the picture.  They were thrilled.

I have to say that it was an extremely satisfying and rewarding experience to be able to help this family live with a concrete floor instead of mud and to brighten their domicile with some lively paint.

On our last day, we also painted another house in the same region, where our other group had poured the concrete floor the day before.  This was a very large family living in a small 4-room house.  They had lived on a mud floor for the past 20 years until we arrived.  Again, this family was exceedingly grateful for our efforts.

I have to say that this was one of the best experiences I have had.  I learned so much about their building methods, their culture, their living conditions, and their people.  It was gratifying to be able to contribute some small amount to improving the lives of some of these families.  I hope I will be able to go on one of these Global Build adventures again before long.


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