A precaster and his church offer a sustainable solution that changes lives in Ghana.
Editor’s Note: “Giving Back” is a year-long series about NPCA members who are doing extraordinary things in their local communities, across North America and throughout the world. If you would like to nominate an NPCA member for a future article, please contact Sara Geer.
By Bob Whitmore
It’s a common thread that runs through the precast concrete industry: precasters know how to get things done. Companies that are able to navigate through recessions and thrive in the competitive construction environment usually have another thing in common – an entrepreneurial risk-taker at the helm of the company. And when a successful precaster gets involved in a volunteer project outside the confines of the plant, good things can happen.
Such is the case with Wilbert Precast Inc. and company owner Dan Houk. Dan and his wife Lori are longtime members of Northview Bible Church in Spokane, Wash. Church members started organizing a new humanitarian aid venture called the International Assistance Program. Formed in 1995, the IAP would create opportunities for business leaders to make a tangible impact in impoverished areas of the world. Dan became involved with this group because of his business expertise.
One of the ideas of IAP was to offer micro-loans to encourage development in a remote area of Ghana, West Africa. It turned into something very different when two men from IAP visited Ghana in 2007 and learned from a local pastor of 36 orphans and abandoned children in nearby villages.
“They took the challenge,” Houk said, and IAP started a group home for children. In April of 2009, Houk made his first visit to Sawla, Ghana, 8,000 miles from Spokane, to visit the children’s home.
“It’s a very remote, very poor area of northwest Ghana,” Houk said. “The needs are limitless. There were 36 kids in a rented building with staff and some security. Very cramped quarters,” he added. “The landlord gave notice that he wanted them out so he could move back into the property.”
The owner of the rented building did not need immediate occupancy, so the IAP group had time to develop a plan. “With the help of a major donor and many others, we built a new home on 10 acres,” Houk said. Dan, his brother Mark and other IAP members organized the effort. “We found 10 acres nearby and provided funding and a building design,” Houk said. “It was built by local tradesmen. Not one power tool was used to build the Children’s Home.”
But that was just the start of the project. Houk said that a key goal from the beginning was to make the project self-sustaining. The staff and children grow their own crops, raising corn, peppers, tomatoes, okra, peanuts, yams and mangos, which greatly reduces the food budget. Later this year they are planning to harvest their first crop of cashews to sell.
They are now well into the next phase of the project: constructing the Sawla View Guesthouse and Restaurant. Last summer the local workers mixed concrete by hand and formed 15,000 blocks to start the eight-building complex, which will include the registration office, security building, a restaurant and the guesthouses. Dan and Lori Houk were at the site in June, and while there was plenty of activity to discuss, a blog written by Lori about their trip focused mostly on the children.
“We were able to see all but two of our kids,” she wrote. “They are doing very well. They are very bright kids and we are excited to see what is next for them.” At the Children’s Home, “there is a real feeling of unity, especially between the children and the staff.” The population of orphans had grown to 49, but several were soon to leave for university – a prospect that would have been nearly impossible without the supportive environment of the Children’s Home.
A highlight of the summer trip, Lori wrote, was a Sod Cutting Ceremony to officially announce the start of the Sawla View Guesthouse and Restaurant. Dignitaries included the chief of Sawla, his associate chiefs and members of the Ladies Court. A percussion band, parade and plenty of dancing topped off the ceremonies. It was a big day in Sawla.
While the Houks returned to Spokane for the remainder of the summer, they stayed in constant contact with the project through their project manager, Moses Nortey, whom they originally met on their first trip to Ghana when he was their driver.
The impact of the project on the community is “so great,” Nortey said. “It has created awareness that job opportunities will be available when the project is completed. People have started sending in their applications.”
The personal involvement of Dan and Lori has also made an impact, Nortey said. “Dan and Lori Houk have made a difference here because the guesthouse is totally different from those we have in the Sawla District and it catches the eyes of many people. People even stop when they are passing by to take a second look at the place.”
The involvement of Dan and Lori Houk and others from the IAP goes far beyond just raising funds and contributing expertise. It’s very personal. “The passion Dan and Lori have for the project is so great,” Nortey said. “They interact well with the children in the home and the workers on the site. They talk about the project everywhere they go in Ghana, and they always want to see and hear how the project is going.”
Dan has served as the chief architect and fundraiser for the guesthouse project, while Lori is the “go person for getting things done,” he said. Dan just finished his eighth trip to Sawla, while Lori has joined him on the last five trips.
Returning again in November, the Houks were preparing for an expected spring opening of the office and the first six rooms of the guesthouse, followed by completion of the additional rooms and restaurant. In such a remote area, one might expect prospects for a restaurant and hotel to be fairly bleak, but several factors point toward a project that will be able to sustain itself, employ local residents, and become a cornerstone for the community. The town currently has no accommodations for travelers and the closest restaurant is 45 minutes away. A recently paved road now connects Sawla with villages to the east. There are government district offices in the area where officials meet regularly, and with better roads, the possibility of tourism.
“This is a unique project where the end result is a profit-making entity overseen by our people that takes care of the needs of the kids, schools and churches in the surrounding community forever with no more fundraising needed to do it,” Houk said. “Imagine if this model was used a million times over around the world. This is way better than our government giving their government money and hoping it gets used for the intended purpose.”
To learn more about the project or add your support, watch the Sawla Project video at precast.org/sawla or visit sawlaview.com. For more information, contact Dan Houk ([email protected]). You can also find regular updates through Facebook by searching Sawla Children’s Home-Ghana, West Africa.
Bob Whitmore is NPCA’s vice president of communication and public affairs.