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News & Press: President's Message

April President's Message

Monday, April 1, 2019  
Posted by: Tim Hart
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I remember exactly where I was when I first heard about the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on December 26, 2004. I was sitting at my kitchen table enjoying my breakfast. I stopped eating when I read about the damage and destruction that occurred there, especially in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of people had died, millions were left homeless, and entire towns were destroyed. Somehow, it did not seem to be enough to just write a check to a couple of relief agencies. I wanted to do something that could make a more positive impact, but what actions could there possibly be to impact a disaster of this magnitude?

A few months later, I heard from a colleague about a new non-profit organization called Build Change. Their founder, and at that time their sole employee, Elizabeth Hausler, was traveling to Banda Aceh, Indonesia to do a survey of the damage and was looking for donations to fund the trip. She was also planning to talk to the surviving homeowners there to learn from them their ideas and desires for rebuilding their homes. Elizabeth wanted to avoid the mistakes made in reconstruction efforts that she saw in India, where people had abandoned the homes that were built for them after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake because they thought the houses were unsafe or not livable for their needs.

I, like many in my office, donated money to Build Change to fund this trip. Thus began my association with Build Change that has lasted 14 years and has included multiple projects in seven different countries. I gravitated towards Build Change’s mission to help people help themselves. Build Change not only listens to the homeowners, they actively engage the homeowners in the building process. They not only bring earthquake resistant building technology to these countries, but also they adapt the technology to the local environment and train the local homeowners, builders, material suppliers, engineers, and government officials on how to use it.

Through Build Change, I have been able to travel to Indonesia, Haiti, Colombia, and Nepal and work directly with the local Build Change staff on reconstruction and retrofit projects. More importantly, I have been able to meet with the people in these countries and hear their stories about their lives before, during, and after the earthquake. Some of their stories were heartbreaking, some of them were funny, some of them were inspiring. What they all had in common was that they were all human. Being in these countries and meeting the people who live there has given me a different perspective on my life and work back here at home. I am inspired by their stories of resilience in the face of tragedy.

I am thinking of this in light of the recent natural disasters in Mozambique, Indonesia, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere. I am also thinking about recent man made tragic events in Christchurch, Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, and others. There are also the long term systemic crises of homelessness, crime, and poverty. I think about why events like these happen, and I think about what, if anything, I can do about them. It can be very overwhelming and intimidating to think that anyone can do anything that can make a positive impact in the lives of the suffering.

I took the attached photo outside of Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2006, approximately a year and a half after the earthquake and tsunami. The level of devastation that I saw there was hard to comprehend. However, within these fields of devastation there were many palm trees still standing. I was amazed at how these palm trees, which typically have shallower roots than many other trees, could remain standing when everything around them had been destroyed. I called it the Tao of palm trees: the palms were weak enough to sway and bend when subjected to earthquakes and tsunamis but strong enough to remain standing under their own weight. Their weakness is their strength.

I have drawn strength from those who had been weakened by tragedy and loss but refused to break. They have inspired me, and many others, to help people help themselves. By helping to make their world a better place, they have in turn made my world a better place.

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