June 30, 2016
I'd never seen a grant proposal in my life. But as soon as the meeting was over I went to the ARC office and pounded one out. I named three nearby towns that I knew well- Gadish, Sllakofe, and Kishnapolë- each of them more than 80 percent destroyed by bombing.

Then I set to work lining up local suppliers for the materials needed- cement mixers, shovels, sledgehammers, lumber, roof beams and tiles. I told these men to be ready to deliver on 12 hours' notice. "The money will come." I had my interpreter tell them, "and when it does, I'll pay you." My confidence seemed to convince them. One after another, the suppliers shook my hand and told me that they would make sure that all the supplies were available to me.

Because the windows and doors had been blown off most of the houses that were standing, the villagers had erected makeshift barriers to keep the cold out. I had these barriers taken down so that the houses would be immediately ready for rebuilding as soon as the promised money came through. It was a gamble, but I was sure we'd get the money. We had to. I also called Ron at the fire department back in Berkeley.

"I hate to do this," I told him, "but I 'm going to have to ask for another month off. I am right at the edge of helping to make something happen over here."

Ron told me that several men and women at the fire department were willing to donate their days off to cover for me. "If you're making a difference over there, John, then stay."

With each passing day, the villagers all seemed to put more faith in my plan. But as autumn days grew colder and no word came, a horrible feeling of doubt began to creep up in me. With their doorways and windows cleared, the homes in the three villages were even more vulnerable. A sudden heavy snow now would be disastrous. I'm just leading these people on. The grant's not going to come through, and they will be even worse off than they were before because of my meddling.

On October 1 the bad news came. "We received word from the Department of Defense," one of the U.S. Army officials told me. "The proposal's going to have to get past more red tape than we thought. It could be another month before we hear anything."

Another month! That would be far too late. The faces in all the photos I'd taken flashed through my mind--Mohammed and Arsim and their families, and all the others like them, who'd greeted my attempts to help with gratitude, cheer, and complete confidence. What would those faces look like when I told them that I let them down?

I can't do that. I just can't tell them that. I have to find another way.

I headed toward the building that housed the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"I need to see the Head of the Office right away," I said to his secretary.

"He's in a meeting. If you care to leave your name."

"Thanks," I told her. "I'll wait."

Two hours later, the Head of the Office came out and extended his hand.

"Sir, I know you are aware of my proposal," I said. "And I know you have the best intentions of helping it get okayed .someday. But winter is coming and I want to make sure you know what this proposal is all about."

I pulled out a handful of photos I'd taken, and lined them up on his desk. "It's about people like these, who may not live to see another spring if the funds to rebuild don't come through. I've seen these people up close, talked to them, and maybe that's what you need to do too. If we can't get the funds for rebuilding. I'm going to bring all of them--everybody in all three villages--right here to your office."

He gave me a long look, and I could see that he wasn't bluffing. "I'll see what more I can do," he said.

The next day I went down to the daily refugee relief meeting, more out of habit than anything else. I found my usual chair and sat down, feeling utterly lost. Then just as the meeting was about to begin, an official walked in and handed me a letter.

The approval had come through.

The very next morning, a truck loaded with lumber, tiles, concrete, and tools of all sorts pulled into Kishnapolë. Young and old rushed out of their ruined shells of houses, shouting and cheering. Dozens of tractors and horse-drawn carts soon arrived to take materials to the other villages.

I never saw houses go up so fast. Everyone was given a job, and one after another each family got the shelter they needed to make it through the winter. "A home is the one place a person should always feel safe," one villager said to me as we unloaded a stack of timber from the back of a truck. "Without one, a person isn't really secure."

On November 1, after living for more than 10 weeks in Kosovo, I returned to my own home. I went to my back porch and looked out at the rolling hills of Northern California, the hills of Kosovo still fresh in my mind.

What I'd accomplished over there was just a drop in the bucket really. But as my mother used to tell us on the way down to Mexico with a VW bus full of clothes, it's important to do even one small thing. And maybe that's all God really asks of any of us.