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Retired college professor took Habitat teams to 16 countries

Bernard Parker, who will turn 75 Thursday, has led Habitat for Humanity Global Village teams of 10 or 12 people to 16 countries in the past 10 years. “It should be a basic human right that everyone has a safe place to live,” he said. 

DIRK SHADD | Times

Bernard Parker, who will turn 75 Thursday, has led Habitat for Humanity Global Village teams of 10 or 12 people to 16 countries in the past 10 years. “It should be a basic human right that everyone has a safe place to live,” he said. 

Bernard Parker of St. Petersburg and his band of Habitat for Humanity altruists were fast asleep in a remote village in Nepal when he was roused by the sound of something thrashing around in the bamboo out in the garden.

In Nepal, a mountainous country the size of Illinois nestled between China and India and home to Mount Everest, the team members were building the house, as they do everywhere they go, out of materials indigenous to the country. In this case, bamboo.

The owner of the home they were building raised pigs, so Parker just thought that the pigs had gotten out and the owner was chasing them.

"But, no," Parker said. "The man had spotted a cobra and was trying to kill it. He said cobras smell the mother's milk when they are nursing (the couple had a 9-day-old baby) and will actually come in the hut and kill the child. They lived in a one-room thatched hut with a dirt floor and no door."

All in a day's work for Parker, who has led Habitat for Humanity Global Village teams of 10 or 12 people to 16 countries in the past 10 years.

"The Global Village experience has a profound change on many participants. It changes the way they see the world. They experience poverty first hand and, by working with the family, realize how hard these people work, and yet for so little.

"It should be a basic human right that everyone has a safe place to live," he said. (The pig farmer killed the cobra, by the way.)

• • •

It's hard to imagine anyone packing more into life than Parker has. His energy and enthusiasm belie the fact that he will be 75 on his birthday Thursday.

He entered a Franciscan seminary at age 15 and was a monk for several years before leaving the order when he was 24. He studied philosophy at several universities, earning his master's from the University of Chicago after being awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, as well as a doctorate from Tulane University.

He found time during his studies to meet and marry Polly Crowe (who, coincidentally, had originally planned to be a nun) and have two children. He taught philosophy at several colleges before going into administration and spent the end of his career as president of two Catholic colleges before retiring in 1999.

Two years later, he was back in the workforce, this time as a volunteer, building houses around the world.

We caught up with the globe-trotter when he got back from his latest trip, to Indonesia, to ask him some questions:

1 What's the funniest thing that happened to you?

I was shoveling sand in India, and there were several water buffalo tied up nearby. (They use them for milk, not meat.) So, to make the kids (and my team members) laugh, I began trying to imitate the low growling noise they make. I got two cows to answer me. Suddenly, a huge antlered bull rounded the corner at full speed and headed straight for me. I clambered up a pile of stones, and the bull ran right by. Obviously, I didn't look like competition even though I sounded like it.

2 What was the saddest or most touching thing that happened to you?

Listening to the owner of a house we were building in Ethiopia. She was a single mother with three children who made a living with her still, selling liquor one shot at a time. I asked her if she always made enough money to pay her rent ($3 a month for one room). She said yes, usually, unless she had a bad stomach and had to use the toilet, which cost 5 cents every time she used it. Then she would not have enough to pay the rent.

3 What were your favorite and least favorite native dishes?

My least favorite dish was in Mongolia. It was served every day and called Chicago steak or Mongolian steak, but it was almost inedible. I really like Ethiopian food; you eat with your hands using injera (a type of flatbread) to scoop up the vegetables, like lentils and cabbage.

4 What characteristics or strengths should a person have if he or she wants to join a Global Village team build?

All a person needs is the willingness to work hard and get sweaty and dirty while enjoying the experience of a new culture. No special skills are needed; most of what we do is just hard physical work. It's not for people looking for a vacation or those who have soft stomachs and need special diets.

5 Where do you travel for fun?

I have traveled to over 100 countries, and now my bucket list is to reach 150. I have been to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, scuba dived in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, visited the largest waterfalls, like Victoria in Zimbabwe and Iguazu on the border of Brazil and Paraguay. I have traveled by train on the Siberian Express from Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, to Moscow (about six days) and from Lhasa, Tibet, to Beijing. It is the highest train ride in the world, reaching about 15,000 feet over the Tibetan Plateau. (They actually have oxygen in the cabin). I have traveled as far south as Tierra del Fuego and as far north as Barrow, Alaska.

Have hammer,

will travel

Where Bernard Parker has helped build houses (some with memories):

United States, 2001-2003

Costa Rica, June 2004

Chile, September 2004 and April 2005

New Zealand, December 2005

Bolivia, November 2006. A revolution in the capital city of La Paz spurred him to buy 11 plane tickets to get his team to safety. They went to another build in Cochabamba, 150 miles southeast.

Uganda, September 2007. A child who had never seen a white person came up and touched his arm to see whether the white rubbed off.

Paraguay, March 2008

Mongolia, July 2008. This was his most memorable build. Invited to a Mongolian barbecue, the team chose the lamb to be slaughtered and then waited three hours for it to be cooked with potatoes and carrots in a 10-gallon milk jug. Inside their host's yurt, soccer was on a large-screen solar-powered TV hooked to a satellite dish. There were no roads, no running water, no electricity, no toilets — and the Mongolians, who are nomads, move three times a year.

Ethiopia, December 2009

Zambia, September 2010. They were in the bush with no roads and slept on the floor. He traveled two hours by oxcart with the homeowner to buy a few boards.

Romania, December 2010. In this extremely cold place, one of his team members, a TV producer from Toronto, donated $12,000 so that a heating system could be installed in the four-plex they were building. The Habitat coordinator there was so moved, he cried.

Fiji Islands, June 2010. When a prophet predicted a tsunami, he took his team to a safe location up a mountain. When the appointed time came and went with no tsunami, they headed back down the mountain, and he had a beer party to celebrate. The next day, the president of Fiji had the prophet jailed because he had brought the country to a standstill.

Nepal, October 2011

Sri Lanka, March 2012

Trinidad and Tobago, March 2013

India, October 2013

Indonesia, March. The 1 ½-year-old son of the homeowner liked Parker so much that he called him Grandpa.



Be a volunteer

How: Go to habitat.org/gv and find a place you'd like to go. There is a list of countries and the dates that builds will take place, as well as complete instructions on how to apply.

Cost: About $2,000, plus airfare. If you are interested in fundraising to pay for your trip costs, you can find helpful information on the resources page.

Caveat: There is no maximum age limit, but many of the trips require strenuous manual labor, so all participants should be in good health.

Retired college professor took Habitat teams to 16 countries 05/26/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2014 7:26pm]
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