Building a house to save the children

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A group of local contractors, entrepreneurs and trades workers are sidestepping business as usual and donating their time and labour to build a better future for children in Asia.

Global Neighbors Canada Inc. director Dave Heppner stands in front of a new house the organization is building and selling to raise money for a teachers’ dormitory and safe house for girls along the border between Thailand and Myanmar.

Matt Gardner

Daily Herald

Global Neighbors Canada Inc. (GCNI), a charitable organization based in Prince Albert, has parlayed the business connections of its board of directors and the willingness of some of the city’s tradespeople to work for free into the construction of a new house that can be built at a fraction of the normal cost.

Once the house is completed it will be sold at market value with a much higher profit than would otherwise be possible. Proceeds from the sale will go towards building a safe house for migrant girls in Thailand at risk of sexual exploitation, with a smaller amount helping to fund a dormitory at a teacher’s training school.

There are roughly two million migrants in Thailand from the neighbouring country of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. A military junta has ruled Myanmar for several decades.

“The civil war has been going on for the last 60 years, and we are seeing some really good signs right now of things changing,” GCNI director Dave Heppner said.

“It’s a little bit too early to tell whether or not the changes are authentic, but it seems like there are some real changes coming. Canada as you know has lifted its sanctions, (and) the United States has. There are some real opportunities right now for helping inside Burma.”

With a board of directors comprised of businesspeople and retirees from Prince Albert, Global Neighbors works towards poverty relief and education for the migrant community in the Mae Sot district of Thailand, situated on the border with Myanmar.

The destitution of migrants in the region has had tragic consequences for countless Burmese families — a situation the construction of the safe house for girls aims to change for at least a few.

“The safe house is the home that we’re building for 30 girls who are at risk of sexual exploitation,” Heppner said. “What happens is a lot of times parents sell their daughters into prostitution, and they sell them at a very young age, as young as 12 years old. What we’re doing is we’re providing a home for them and we’re educating them and we’re going to keep them until they’re adult so they don’t have to go into the sex trade. We’re saving them from that kind of a life.”

The dormitory, meanwhile, is merely the latest addition to another Global Neighbors project, a training school for teachers where graduates return to their villages to upgrade the skill level in teaching. GCNI currently has 68 Burmese teachers-in-training enrolled in a one-year program at the freshly-constructed education building.

We’re providing a home for them and we’re educating them and we’re going to keep them until they’re adult so they don’t have to go into the sex trade. We’re saving them from that kind of a life. Dave Heppner

“A lot of the teachers have no formal education,” Heppner said. “Any training that they get is a definite plus for the kids, because if you don’t have a quality teacher, you don’t get quality education.”

Sale of the new house in Prince Albert, the third to be built by GCNI, will help pay for this dormitory and the safe house for girls. The home is located at Raider’s Bay, where market prices regularly surpass $310,000.

Heppner’s background in construction and land development means occasionally helping out alongside the trades workers, but he insists his role is minimal. He points to the generosity of tradespeople in Prince Albert (labour typically makes up one-third to one-half the cost of building a new house) as well as the suppliers who donated building materials.

Luc April, general manager of Econo Lumber and a fellow director at GCNI, seconds that assessment.

“In our economy right now, those people are extremely busy,” he said. “They are taking time and income away from themselves to work on this cause. Because this is our third house, a lot of them are doing this a third time over. Since they’ve started they’ve been to Thailand with us to see what their work accomplished, and so they’re helping us spread the word as well to other contractors who haven’t been here.”

April and board member Irwin Wiebe (former owner of Jovin Homes) were able to use their connections to local material suppliers — those they normally buy from — to donate building materials for free or at a reduced cost.

April credits Econo Lumber owner Curtis Lemieux for the ability to devote part of his working day to GCNI, and for pushing him to visit Thailand.

“I’d never envisioned myself doing this kind of work until he suggested, ‘Just go,’ ”, April said. “He gave me a little nudge to go, and of course I’ve been sold on this ever since.”

Organizations: GCNI, Prince Albert, Global Neighbors Canada

Geographic location: Thailand, Myanmar, Canada United States Mae Sot

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