"I learned a lot of Spanish," said Matt Ticknor, the Thrivent representative from Monett who was nominated to take part in the 2012 Thrivent Builds with Habitat for Humanity project. "We learned a lot through immersion."
Ticknor was one of 25 local representatives who were joined by four representatives from Thrivent's national headquarters who took part in the international build.
"This is a multi-million dollar project that helps address housing and poverty in places like El Salvador and Guatemala," Ticknor said. "People have to go through the application process and qualify just like they do here with the local Habitat organization."
Thrivent and Habitat for Humanity partnered on the housing project after one of El Salvador's five active volcanoes erupted, leaving about 60 percent of the population homeless.
Those chosen to receive a Habitat home are also required to invest "sweat equity" into their homes, and must have a minimum of two family members on the site each day of the build.
"If the family owns land, the cost is about $6,000," Ticknor said. "If they don't own their land, the cost is about $10,000. The average monthly income for a worker in El Salvador is $180 per month."
The homes build in El Salvador measure about 15 by 18 feet, and contain two bedrooms, a living area, a kitchenette, a bathroom and a porch.
"It's small by our standards, but they are built to withstand an earthquake that registers six on the Richter scale," Ticknor said.
The cinderblock homes are reinforced with rebar, and footings are hand-dug to a depth of three-and-a-half feet.
"For two days, I was digging footings with hand tools," Ticknor said. "All of the bigger equipment is in the city, and we were in a rural area of the country."
While the work was the focus of the mission, it was the families that grabbed Ticknor's heart.
|"Families live in homes where they have dirt floors," Ticknor said. "But the kids were so clean. They have to wear school uniforms and they were spotless.||It was unbelievable."|
Ticknor said most of the houses also have dedicated areas where family members honor their ancestors.
"It's a patriarchal society," he said. "Each home had some kind of shrine, with photos of the men in the family who had died."
Natives assigned to assist the Habitat group were patient and skilled in the construction process.
"We didn't speak Spanish, so unspoken communication, hand gestures, facial expressions, became a way for us to communicate with each other," Ticknor said. A skilled mason was working alongside us on each of the four homes we worked on, to make sure the work was done correctly. They were very patient with us."
The project isn't about building a house here or there, but about building communities.
"Thrivent will usually go in and build a community center or a pre-school," Ticknor said. "Then we will build 50 to 70 houses around it. The group of families will form a mayoral board and they will have the structure to maintain the building and the community."
Families are an important part of the El Salvadoran culture.
"The people like to stay in family groups," Ticknor said. "Many times, if a family owns property, they will find a place to put a Habitat home so they younger families can take care of their elders. It's part of their caring and culture."
Although already built, some of the Habitat homes are empty in the remote areas of El Salvador.
"The population of El Salvador is about six million," Ticknor said. "About a million-and-a-half are working overseas, primarily in the United States, sending money back to El Salvador to pay for their homes. About 20 percent of the country's gross national income is wired in from the U.S."
While working on the project, the team was treated to native cuisine prepared by the locals.
"We never had a bad meal," Ticknor said. "We may not have known what we were eating, but it was never bad.
"The people in the community prepared a meal on our last day in El Salvador," Ticknor said. "It was their way of thanking us. There was so much food, we never wanted for anything.
"They also gave us gifts," Ticknor said. "They treated us like family."
Although this was the first time Ticknor had the opportunity to join the Thrivent-Habitat team, it's surely not going to be the last.
"Next to my wife and the birth of my children, this has been the highlight," Ticknor said. "If there was a plane leaving [for El Salvador] in an hour, I'd be on it.
"My goal is to form my own team of local volunteers and go back next year," he continued. "This will always be the most special trip for me because it was my first. I want to share that experience with others."