Volunteer hopes to share journey

Exchange: After benefiting from two charitable trips to Central America, a Fallston resident is inviting others in Harford to join her.

November 16, 2003|By Amanda Angel | Amanda Angel,SUN STAFF

When Ellen Saltsman came back to Fallston last month after a 10-day trip to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity International, she knew that she had to remember her experience. The notebooks, pictures and souvenirs from the trip weren't enough to express the profundity of her experience - one she didn't want to forget.

"It is harder to adjust to coming back than it is going there," she said of her last trip to Guatemala, during which she helped excavate the side of a cliff and create a house foundation for a Mayan woman, Susanna, and her 16-year-old daughter, Deanna.

It was the second trip to the small town of Totonicapan, in the southwestern corner of Guatemala, that she has gone on with the Habitat for Humanity program, and she is planning to organize another visit this summer. Habitat for Humanity is a Christian charity that brings together volunteers to build houses for the less fortunate.

Part of Saltsman's challenge is retaining the perspectives on life that she learned in Guatemala while she is immersed in American culture. She said her two trips to the mountain village showed her how to be less wasteful of resources and more accommodating with other people.

"They look at time differently than we do. It's all based on personal relationships rather than a relationship with the clock," she said.

Saltsman hopes to share this experience with her 16-year-old daughter, Emily, and other Harford County parents and children this summer as she is trying to organize her own trip to Totonicapan. The idea arose after Saltsman met Deanna, who is the same age as her daughter.

"Wouldn't it be cool if Harford County could build a house in Guatemala?" she asked.

Harford County's Habitat for Humanity affiliate sponsors the building of about five houses a year locally, said Jim Lewinsky, volunteer coordinator for the Harford branch. He said there are three houses currently being built in Aberdeen and one in Edgewood. While it will contribute funds to Habitat for Humanity International, Lewinsky said, the Harford affiliate has not sponsored any international trips.

With 14,127 houses constructed and 18 affiliates within the country, Habitat for Humanity International has built more houses in Guatemala than in any other country outside the United States, according to spokesman Duane Bates. He said materials for each house - they often do not have running water or electricity - cost $3,300.

Saltsman, a Cap Gemini Ernst & Young employee and mother of three, had led youth groups into West Virginia and North Carolina to help on construction sites. She knows that organizing a Guatemalan trip for students will require more work, which is why she has asked several parents to come with her. Two other mothers have expressed interest, she said.

The two trips Saltsman has taken were sponsored through Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, the organization's affiliate in Minneapolis. Saltsman found out about the program through her brother-in-law, Ken Stecklein, who is an architect in Minneapolis and has helped build Habitat houses.

When Stecklein first mentioned the trip to Totonicapan in 2001, there was no room for Saltsman to join the group. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, several spots opened up, and Saltsman jumped into one of them for the October 2001 trip.

Since Habitat requires that the future residents of the house also help with construction, international volunteers meet and work alongside the recipients of their charity. Saltsman, who served four years in the Army while stationed in Germany, thinks that programs such as those through Habitat can give Americans a better rapport overseas.

"People were excited that we were there. They know what Habitat is doing for their country," she recalled. Saltsman said she observed an improvement in the living conditions in Totonicapan, which she attributed in part to Habitat's efforts.

Her fondest memories are of Deanna and Susanna, two of the many reasons why she wants to travel to Guatemala in the summer.

Before Saltsman left Totonicapan the second time, Susanna thanked the volunteers. "She told us, `You helped me build my house of gold,'" Saltsman said.

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