Five thousand miles from the building codes and safety rules of Ontario, Canada, the team of IBEW electricians had never seen anything quite like the dormitories for older students from a Guatemalan children’s home.
Live wires draped from walls and ceilings, nothing was grounded, breakers were shot and overload protection was dangerously inadequate. Girls were even getting mild electric shocks in their showers.
|Pictured with a farewell piece of art from the boys at the NPH home and wearing bracelets made by the girls, Local 804 volunteers wind down their 10-day journey to Guatemala, joined by some of the grateful children and staff they helped.
Some of the kindest people they’d ever met were counting on them to fix it all in 10 days’ time.
Not only were they determined to do that and more, each one paid $2,700 from his own pocket for the privilege.
Kitchener, Ontario, Local 804 retiree Jerry Wilson would happily do it again.
“One hundred percent of our people who went there felt so rewarded and fulfilled,” said Wilson, who pitched the trip to fellow members of the local’s retiree club. “We were all blown away by how much we accomplished in a short time.”
Wilson and his wife, Terry, were among 13 volunteers who made the April journey to Parramos, Guatemala, 60 miles inland from the Pacific coast.
The group included nine electricians -- five retirees, three active Local 804 journeymen and one apprentice – along with three family members and a coordinator from the charity that arranged the trip, Friends of the Orphans Canada.
Their destination was Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH), which translates to “Our Little Brothers and Sisters,” a children’s home and school that impressed its visitors beyond all expectations.
They were awed by the depth of the loving care, creative therapies and abundant learning opportunities for the vulnerable children —some whose parents had died, but most removed from troubled families.
They marveled at the radiant smiles and joyful spirits of people who had next to nothing materially.
“It was a life-changing experience to realize how little some people in this world have and how fortunate we are, basically because of where we were born,” said Local 804 retiree Neil Whittaker. “Even though they didn’t have much, they were all happy, and they were immensely grateful for anything we did.”
‘The Most Awesome Crew Ever’
Back at home, Local 804 retirees have wired more than 80 houses for Habitat for Humanity and generously support other causes with deeds and donations. But they’d never ventured far from their communities.
They were familiar with the good works of Friends of the Orphans Canada, or FOTOCAN, their country’s arm of an agency that provides aid to children in need around the world.
After a FOTOCAN presentation last October, the retirees began sponsoring a child in Haiti. At their next meeting, a speaker who coordinates the agency’s volunteer programs in Guatemala told them about the NPH home and its urgent need for electrical upgrades it couldn’t afford.
Wilson put out a call for volunteers, assembling an eager group willing to pay its own way, as well as the cost of supplies built into the $2,700 per-person fee.
That applied to family members as well -- Wilson’s wife, their daughter, and Whittaker’s wife. The women helped build a sensory garden at the home, lent a hand in English classes and otherwise assisted staff and the NPH alumni serving as live-in volunteers for a year after college.
Living and working in different areas of Local 804’s territory, most of the group started off as acquaintances, if they knew each other at all. Now, Wilson said, they’re family.
“It was magic how nine electricians meshed so well,” he said. “It was a challenging job – not the same materials we’d have here, no code, no rules, no blueprints, no nothing. Everyone just figured out how we were going to do it, and that’s what we did. It was the most awesome crew ever.”
So great was the camaraderie and commitment, Whittaker said, that “there was no disagreement among the group at any time.”
When he and his wife, Wendy, decided to make the trip, an online search hinted at what was ahead.
“I Googled ‘electrical code in Guatemala’ to get an idea of the standards and the first thing that came up was ‘how to take a shower in Guatemala without getting electrocuted,’” he said.
Some of the materials and larger tools they needed were waiting for them at the dormitories, located in the region’s capital city about 15 minutes from the home’s main campus. The two buildings house older residents who have moved on to college.
A challenge right off the bat was the language barrier as the crew coordinated with the NPH head of maintenance through an interpreter who didn’t know electrical terms. But Wilson said it helped considerably that retiree Gerry Snyder, who effectively served as the project’s foreman, could speak some Spanish.
Tackling the boys’ dorm first, they drilled through solid concrete walls to install new panels and pipes to upgrade power distribution from the meter base, then re-fed the existing circuits. They similarly overhauled the girls’ space, where new wires, breakers and a grounding rod put an end to residents’ 70-volt jolts in the showers.
They made supply runs as needed to a wholesaler that was surprisingly modern. But it didn’t have everything. “We had to MacGyver it, if you will, sometimes,” Wilson said.
Despite the obstacles, they finished in time to install a thousand feet of outdoor lighting at the 25-acre Parramos complex of children’s dormitories, classrooms, offices, a medical center, housing for visiting volunteers and other buildings.
Terry Wilson, who with the other women spent the most time at the main site, said the project made the entire neighborhood safer.
“They strung wires from tree to tree and hung these amazing lights through an area that otherwise was pitch black at night,” she said. “Lots of people walk to work at the home, or walk past the home to jobs at a factory. The light bleeds out onto the street, and that makes such a wonderful difference.”
Many of the tools the men used in their work were their own, items relatively easy to pack such as pliers, hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, tape measures and channel locks.
Their bags were far lighter flying home: They left virtually everything with the NPH foreman, Luis, and his maintenance crew.
“He was so grateful,” Wilson said. “And it will allow students who were with us to continue hands-on learning.”
Big Hearts All Around
Life skills, from metal shop and carpentry to sewing, baking and gardening, are part of the holistic education for the roughly 75 NPH children and another 250 students in the community with the good fortune to attend the school, Terry Wilson said.
The trip was a homecoming for her. After graduating with a university degree in Spanish literature in 1969, she won a scholarship to study and teach in Guatemala. She fell in love with the beautiful country and its people, but had never been back.
One highlight of her return was working with her daughter and Wendy Whittaker on the sensory garden that she said is designed “to be very welcoming for children with special needs – lots of bright flowers for them to touch and smell.”
She found compassion and tenderness everywhere she looked.
“The whole time we were there we did not hear anyone being chastised or punished or ridiculed or made fun of,” she said, speaking both of patient grown-ups and the kindness young residents showed each other.
Although poverty and trauma were largely what brought them to NPH, “They were the happiest, happiest children and adults that I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with,” Terry Wilson said.
The group bookended its stay with two days of guided sightseeing, traveling to Mayan ruins and open-air markets and taking in the largest Palm Sunday parade in Central America. They spent evenings socializing with the home’s volunteers, sometimes led in song by Jerry Wilson and daughter Shannon Brinkman on guitars.
The gratitude as they departed was palpable. The girls gave them homemade bracelets and the boys presented a piece of artwork featuring the flags of Canada and Guatemala.
“There were tears,” Jerry Wilson said. “They thanked us for improving their lives. It felt good knowing that we left their home in much better condition than when we arrived.”