PLEASANTON -- On Jan. 12, Haitians solemnly marked the three-year anniversary of the catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake that decimated their homeland.
Today, on La Gonave -- an island about 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the capital -- a few of the tent cities and shacks that housed refugees are gone, but many remain. For developer Sherman Balch, the work is just beginning.
"We want to give the Haitians employable skills," Balch said. "It comes down to if you want to alleviate poverty, you've got to give them jobs. ... They need to learn a trade."
A respected Bay Area builder with Balch Enterprises in Hayward, Balch first traveled to Haiti in March 2010, just two months after the quake killed more than 200,000 people and left an additional 1 million homeless. As part of an outreach mission by Cornerstone Fellowship church in Livermore, he was struck by how much devastation came as a result of poor construction standards.
Noting the country's widespread unemployment, Balch was compelled to not only supply Haitians with permanent homes, but to hire them and train them to do the building themselves.
To realize his goal, Balch, 62, founded Extollo International, a nonprofit based in Pleasanton, where he lives.
Working with Cornerstone, Extollo supervised and helped rebuild the Dezman Fluery Foundation orphanage in Leogane, Haiti. It had been destroyed by the quake, displacing dozens of Haitian girls. Construction began in summer 2010, and finished in June 2011. Then Okipe -- a co-op of Bay Area nonprofits -- approached Balch to build a Children's Village for 150 more orphans. That project began in February 2012.
Building the village has become a full-time job for Balch, who has lost track of how many times he has been to the island. He designed it to meet California earthquake standards and withstand hurricane-force winds. Each 700-square-foot home has concrete walls, with indoor plumbing and a porch.
Taking an apprenticeship approach, teams of volunteers -- mostly Bay Area craftsmen -- visit Haiti for several weeks at a time to build and teach masonry, carpentry and plumbing to the locals. They work all day, with a stunning view of the Caribbean as a backdrop. Electrical and plumbing classes are usually held in the mornings, and on Saturdays, the Haitians are taught woodworking.
"They're picking it up really quickly," said Bruce Kirkpatrick, an Extollo board member who has made several trips to Haiti. "We're training the Haitians to do the work so, eventually, 10 years or a generation down the road, they can turn the corner."
By project's end, it's hoped 90 percent of the work will have been done by Haitians.
So far, Extollo has hired nearly 70 workers and pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy, Balch said.
Each morning, there's a long line of people looking for work at the Extollo site, he said. They make about twice the pay of an average Haitian, and are fed lunch.
Balch said he's "pleasantly surprised" with how well it has worked.
"We've just had an excellent response from them," Balch said. "They're eager to learn. They want to take care of their families."
About half of the arriving volunteers come through Cornerstone Fellowship.
The church's senior pastor, Steve Masden, said Balch's dedication is evidence of the "quality person" he has known more than a decade.
"He's at an age when he could be thinking about retirement, but you're not seeing it in Sherman," Masden said. "I just really admire him. He's an award-winning builder who decided that wasn't enough."
Balch said building in Haiti has its challenges; many tools and materials aren't available on the island and must be sent by boat.
The village's second phase is nearly done, with 10 homes for orphans and another building for workers. Once finished, it will house nearly 100 orphans, with a caregiver in each home.
Children should be moving in by the end of March and, after a break, Extollo will begin the next phase, to raise the capacity to 150.
Even when the village is complete, Balch's work in Haiti will be far from over. His long-term goal is to build a construction training center and trade school outside Port-au-Prince. The project is years away.
"If we can get the construction going, it's going to save lives the next time there's a disaster," Balch said. "It doesn't have to happen again, and we're giving them the skills to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Claim to fame: Vice president of Balch Enterprises and founder of Extollo International, a nonprofit teaching Haitians to build sturdy, permanent homes.
Quote: "You see the profound pain and suffering and you want to have some sort of positive, lasting effect. You just go back feeling good, thinking you're doing a rewarding thing."
Details: For information on Extollo International or to donate, go to www.extollointernational.org.
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