Since starting their mission to build 100 homes on the mountaintops of El Salvador, Marsha Norberg and her husband, David Gantz, have been witness to remarkable things.
The retired Amherst couple will be the first to admit they had no idea what they were doing when they decided to build houses thousands of miles away from their cozy home.
Neither had worked in construction. They don’t live on site in the Third World country wracked by war and gangs. They don’t have unlimited funds to throw at the problem.
They just knew, returning from mission trips to the area, that the people they met deserved the basic needs of shelter and security that a permanent structure would provide. And so they started Operation Rescue in 2014 with the glaring difference between their comfortable neighborhood and the extreme poverty they saw in El Salvador in their minds. Why, they asked themselves, are we so favored merely because we were born here?
The bare-bones operation started collecting donations and planning for 100 basic homes, cinder-block structures of only 650 to
700 square feet with no running water or plumbing but with doors and metal shutters over window openings.
By the end of July when their mission was profiled in The Chronicle-Telegram, 95 homes had gone up and the couple felt confident they would reach their initial goal.
But now, they say, divine intervention has moved the goalpost.
“God is good. It leaves you speechless,” Norberg said.
Their story ran in The Chronicle on July 31. It outlined how each home costs $2,100 with locally sourced materials. The couple donates their time and all administrative costs and works with a local project manager on site that provides information and photographs of construction and submits budgets and applications for homes. There is such a need that the charity tries to prioritize families by need, such as if they include many young children or elderly.
Weeks later, money started to trickle in. And then, like the rainy season in El Salvador, the deluge came.
In less than two months, the charity received $23,225 in donations.
One anonymous donor contacted the couple and asked to come by and talk about the work they were doing. They do not know the couple and spent maybe an hour or so discussing the mission, Gantz said.
“We thought they were going to make a donation, but then they told us they wanted to build 10 houses,” he said.
They gave the couple a check for $21,000.
“Time and time again over the past four years we have seen acts of unbelievable kindness and generosity. That’s what we’re learning from this whole mission,” Norberg said. “If you just listen to the TV news, you’d be in despair. But there are so many good people out there willing to help in ways that you wouldn’t believe.”
Another donation came from an elderly woman — also a stranger to the couple — who had been praying for a way to give back.
“She said, ‘I am 85 years old, I had a wonderful husband and I just want to thank Him by building a house for the poor,’” Gantz said.
“She told us she had been looking for some place to give her thanks back to God and when she saw that article she knew that was it. Immediately,” Norberg said.
The woman’s daughter signed off on the check so the family was aware of her wishes and the woman sent it along with a note.
Another woman who uses a walker brought a donation to the house, though she couldn’t get out of the car to deliver it. A person at a store recognized Norberg and gave her $25.
The stories will become part of the bigger story, how a pair of willing hearts saying “yes” to what they believed God was calling them to do is helping to change futures a world away. The couple is writing a book about the experience and is being asked to speak this month as the Cleveland Catholic Diocese prepares its celebrations to mark the canonization of Oscar Romero.
Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador when he was shot during Mass in 1980 at the beginning of the civil war in El Salvador. The Roman Catholic Church has declared him a martyr and Pope Francis will canonize him this month. The Cleveland Diocese has been involved in the country and a Cleveland nun and layworker also was killed there in 1980.
“We’re just doing this one step at a time and having Him light our path. Honestly, this is what God wants done,” Norberg said. “We’re all just a little piece of this amazing movement of charity and outpouring of love and humanitarianism.”
“In this day and age, it’s nice to have a win every now and then,” Gantz said.
For information on Operation Rescue, visit operationrescueinc.org.