By JOEY REISTROFFER
Flying to a foreign country to lug 40-pound concrete blocks around all day under a searing equatorial sun doesn’t sound like a dream vacation, but George Gagnon thought it was an opportunity of a lifetime.
Habitat for Humanity has that effect on people.
“It’s an incredible experience,” Gagnon said about his mission to Peru. “It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.”
He and a dozen folks from across the United States and Canada volunteered to spend two weeks of their summer building concrete houses for underprivileged families in Ilo, Peru.
This mission of mercy was organized by Peter McCord, who has been with Habitat for Humanity for about 18 years and who is a fellow parishioner with Gagnon at Blessed Trinity in Greer. McCord knew that Gagnon was interested in Habitat work overseas, and he finally convinced the Greer Athletic Club owner to hook up with him for an adventure at the equator.
McCord holds a special place in his heart for the people of Peru, saying he wanted to go there since he was a kid. As a child, his family had close friends who lived in this South American country and they made quite an impression on him. Now McCord has a Peruvian foster son and he jumped at the chance to work there with Habitat.
“It’s a deeply religious experience,” McCord said of Habitat. “It’s a Christian ministry. Habitat is based on biblical principles.”
So off they went to help those less fortunate than themselves. Off to places that Gagnon will remember forever. They flew from Charlotte, N.C., to Miami, then over the Caribbean to Peru, where they traveled from Iquitos to Lima to Arequipa and finally a bus trip to Ilo.
Gagnon knew Ilo was a close-knit community as soon as he stepped off the bus. “Everybody just stopped what they were doing to greet us,” Gagnon said. “They sang and danced and did all kinds of things to welcome us to their town. They made you feel like you were special.”
Ilo, geographically, doesn’t offer much, Gagnon said. It’s a barren, coastal desert. A seaport that “looks like a moonscape,” Gagnon said. “One lady kept apologizing for the lack of trees.”
The spirit of the people, however, gives this city by the sea its life.
“You don’t think of it as a ghetto,” Gagnon said of the community where Habitat is building 400 houses. “There people are poor, but they are proud of where they live. They are just so gosh darn poor.”
Gagnon and McCord said they worked on about 20 houses in Ilo and everything was done manually. No big equipment. No modern methods. Just cement, bricks, a few simple tools and a whole lot of sweat.
“Everything was manual and labor-intensive,” Gagnon said. Concrete blocks were made right on the site.
The houses were only 500 square feet of space that cost $2,500 to build. They were, however, dream homes to the families in Ilo, and these families worked hard to build those dreams, Gagnon said.
He was amazed by the drive and the spirit of the women in Ilo. They were strong, tireless workers who never complained, he added.
Even in the heat of the day, when work became a heavy grind, the spirit and the mood of the families and volunteers kept things light.
“You have a bond with them,” Gagnon said. “They know you are there because you care, and they are very grateful.”
After a week of working on the foundations and walls of 20 houses in Ilo, Gagnon, McCord and other Habitat volunteers journeyed to Arequipa for a back-breaking mission.
Gagnon said the folks in Arequipa were trying to build the foundations of their Habitat homes out of hard rock. “You had to chisel that stuff out by hand,” he said. “You had to hammer it out. It was hard work, and they were getting discouraged, so they asked us to help them.”
Even Gagnon, who as owner of an athletic club is in excellent physical condition, said he was huffing and puffing after a couple of swings with the big hammer. “You have to greatly pace yourself there,” he said.
The effort, however, was worth it.
A chance to help a fellow human being build something for his family, explained Gagnon, is an amazing >feeling.