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Building a fortress in El Salvador

A Habitat volunteer recounts her Global Village experience

By Beth Sterrett

To most American eyes, the floor plans outlined in cinder blocks did not look like dream homes. They were perhaps 20-by-25 feet; the size of some American living rooms. 

From left: Heather Kelley, Sophie Holland and Beth Sterret with neighborhood kids who helped sift sand. Photo courtsey of Heather Kelley

The bedrooms would not fit our standard twin beds. The people who would sleep in these rooms, two or three to a room, often slept on mats they rolled up and stored in the morning. The walls were cinder block and the floors were cement. There was no yard to play in or space for a garden, only dirt paths running between the houses and their neighbors.

Yet the three houses my Global Village team built in Ahuachapan, El Salvador in August 2012 were fortresses next to the others on the block. The houses on either side were patched with cement and had corrugated tin roofs reinforced with sheets of black plastic. Most were smaller than the Habitat houses.

The walls of the Habitat houses were threaded with rebar to fortify them against the many forces of nature that plague El Salvador. The country is in a seismically active area, with 22 active volcanoes and earth tremors every day. The homes without rebar crumble like a child’s stack of blocks when the earth shakes.

The strong walls and heavy roofs of the Habitat homes can withstand the onslaught of wind and rain from the frequent hurricanes that pass through Central America. Even the afternoon storms can create aguaceros—downpours heavy enough to create cascades of water through the streets.

El Salvador rates their housing on a scale of 1 to 12 for quality, 12 being the sturdiest. Habitat’s houses, due to the design, workmanship and quality of materials, earn a 10 or 11. That workmanship is provided by masons employed by Habitat. The Habitat homeonwers and the volunteers on my team helped the masons with the less skilled tasks. With so many extra bodies, the masons were freed to focus on the bricklaying while us unskilled folk supported them by doing the gruntwork.

The GV team builds walls reinforced with rebar. Photo courtsey of Heather Kelley

During our week in Ahuachapan, we built homes for three sisters that owned land but had no means to develop it. Each of the sisters had children, and one had grandchildren, who would live in the homes.

The families were with us every day. The men mixed cement and hauled block with the volunteers, and the children looked on and helped as they were able. Even neighbor children not related to the family pitched in with sifting sand and whatever their little hands could do.


The women cooked us a hot lunch and brought it to us each day at noon, with a warm smile. As grateful as they were for our labor, they were equally happy to share their cuisine: the vegetables, sauces and eighteen ways to serve rice.

In typical Salvadoran hospitality, there was always too much food, with Maria piling your plate high like Grandma did when you were a kid. And they never let you help serve or clean up. Though the volunteers were there to work and serve the mission of Habitat, the Salvadorans treated us like royalty.

After five days of demanding physical labor and accompanying sore muscles, there was a farewell ceremony. There was tearful gratitude expressed on both sides, from the family and masons with humble hearts that we would all come so far to build them a proud home, and the volunteers with hearts overflowing with joy and peace at the opportunity to give of themselves to people in such need. 

Then the sky, as if in empathy, cut short the workday that Friday and herded everyone under a canopy with an aguacero—the first we had had on our trip. Amid the waters running ankle deep through the street, the Americans slipped off into the obscurity of the rain, away from the muddy but cheerful labor. 

Beth Sterret with her GV team in El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kalman

When the bruises healed and the rhythm of our every day lives returned, those smiling faces became memories, as if we are not sure if it really happened. For the three sisters in that small town in the mountains of El Salvador, however, the solid roof and walls are very real, as were the hands that built them.

Beth Sterrett is a mother of two and a staff nurse in Kent, Ohio. Her trip to Ahuachapan, El Salvador in August 2012 was her first Global Village expereince.