Empowering women through natural building

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PUTNEY — Liz Johndrow always has been a jack-of-all-trades. She's someone who picked up skills from graphic design to sewing to massage and natural building. In 2011, she decided to add travel to her repertoire. Johndrow knew she wanted to immerse herself in a foreign culture and language. She ended up living in a small community in northern Nicaragua and teaching some of her natural building skills to the local community.

This was the start of what later became The Pueblo Project, an organization that supports women and youths in Nicaragua to build structures, skills and communities.

On Wednesday, from 6 to 9 p.m., The Pueblo Project will be holding a fundraiser at Next Stage Arts. The event will include a silent auction, raffle, and desserts and appetizers. Johndrow said it's a good opportunity to learn about the project and to get involved.

Natural building is when natural materials such as wood, bamboo, straw and clay are used to build. Most of the buildings where Johndrow was located were made through natural building. She described them as beautiful, but the techniques used to build them were not sustainable.

The aftereffects of a 1998 storm, Hurricane Mitch, were still visible in 2007. Lands were eroded, causing crop failure, leading to malnutrition, starvation and compromised immune systems.

The way the community's buildings were constructed enabled insects to live within the surfaces, leading to increased insect-borne illnesses.

Johndrow used her building skills to come up with solutions that would make buildings more resistant to hurricanes and earthquakes and would improve quality of life issues.

"We can make these homes have less places for insects to live and make these stoves put out less smoke into the kitchen, and we can do simple earthen floors that children can crawl on and they're not in all this dust and dirt," Johndrow said.

Rather than using materials that could be costly and harmful to the environment — like buildings in the United States — Johndrow used clay, bamboo and other natural materials.

Johndrow worked with similar homes in the United States, so she applied the skills she learned to the Nicaraguan homes. Her aim was to teach the people of the community the skills she learned.

"How do we bring a life and vitality to the community?" Johndrow asked herself before forming the organization.

The community is filled with young people and single mothers, said Johndrow, who, as a single mother herself, recognized the importance of giving mothers skills.

One of the tricks was to find skills that would actually stick with the community and that they valued.

"If you can find the thing that gets them excited they're going to show up even on a bad day," she said. Building was one of them. After Johndrow came back to Nicaragua for her second season, she was stunned to see that the students she had taught had constructed buildings in her absence, using the techniques she'd taught them.

That's when it hit Johndrow — she could teach them skills and they would use them. Students might even teach the skills to other neighborhoods. Johndrow thought she could have students go to different communities and teach. When she came back to Nicaragua, however, she discovered that four out seven of her students had babies while she was gone.

"It was like, 'Oh, they can't leave to go to another community," she said.

Instead, the program adapted to let families teach within their own neighborhoods.

One of the most exciting things to see, Johndrow said, was students getting excited about art.

"Everyone's always so intimidated by the artistic and creative aspect," Johndrow said. "And then you can't get them to stop doing it."

She has pictures of women standing in front of walls with sculpted mermaids and flowers coming out of them.

"Once they pick up the creative and artistic aspect they become confident about other skills too," Johndrow said. She likes to have her students paint a mural, or do something creative, first so that they feel more comfortable practicing and teaching the rest of the work.

The Pueblo Project has volunteers from all over the world. But Johndrow hopes to establish a home base in southern Vermont. Already, she said, she's had a ton of help from the local community. She hopes the fundraiser helps establish the project's presence in southern Vermont even more.

To get involved with The Pueblo Project go to www.puebloproject.org/volunteer.

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 153. Or follow her @birchharmony.

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