During the summer of 1999 I was working as a paramedic for the Berkeley, California, fire department, and living in a small town about an hour north of San Francisco. I was 42 and divorced, my kids grown, and lately I'd felt I'd come to a point where things were settling down. I'd found myself taking stock and looking at my life from an increasingly spiritual perspective.
One Sunday morning, sitting on my back porch as the sun rose on the northern California countryside, I opened the paper to an article on the war-torn former Yugoslavia. At the center of the piece was a picture of a bombed-out building somewhere in Kosovo, where the fighting was at its heaviest.
Before earning my paramedic's license, I'd worked for years as a carpenter. I knew just how much time and effort it would take to rebuild that structure. Who on earth was going to do it?
I am. I almost laughed out loud. I was just one man. What difference could I make in the face of all that devastation?
Even as I asked myself the question, I heard familiar words: Sometimes one person taking just one small action can make all the difference. That's what my mother used to say to my seven sisters and me when we were kids. Once a year, she and Dad would pile us into our VW bus and drive from our San Diego home down to Mexico to distribute clothing to needy kids as part of a church outreach. God would bless our efforts, Mom assured us. My sisters and I always had to watch out because a carelessly dropped jacket or hat might easily end up in the "Mexico Box."
I'd done a fair amount of volunteer work myself over the years reaching out to help others whenever my heart told me to. On that Sunday morning, my heart told me to go to Kosovo.
I packed a crate with tools and a backpack with clothes, cramming in a camera at the last minute, and climbed aboard a plane bound for Athens, Greece. After three more days of travel and countless squabbles with customs officials, I finally approached the border of Kosovo on foot, headed for its capital, Pristina. I was swallowed up in a river of humanity. Thousands of refugees- hungry and exhausted and carrying what few possessions were left to them- slogged numbly back home to Kosovo. What have I gotten myself into? This isn't a weekend trip to Mexico to give away clothes. These people have lost everything.
I fell into step behind a young couple. The woman was carrying a crying infant. I reached for my canteen of water and held it out to her. She took it and gave it to her child. The crying stopped, and the woman smiled gratefully. Again, I reminded myself of my mothers: Any action, however small can help. Whatever happens over here, I have to remember that.
I met a man named David Savard, a Chicago high school teacher who was doing relief work with the American Refugee Committee, or ARC, in the town of Gjilan in southeastern Kosovo. At David's suggestion, I joined ARC myself. I was assigned a jeep and an interpreter and began visiting the outlying areas to conduct damage surveys, camera in hand. Seeing a village destroyed by war in a newspaper is one thing, but it is something else altogether in person.
Centuries-old family homes had been reduced to rubble by a single mortar round. The houses left standing lacked doors, windows and roofs. Many of the returning refugees were living in cramped tents with little or nothing to eat.
In the village of Kishnapolë, my interpreter and I were invited to dinner by a farmer named Arsim. The last thing I wanted to do was to take any of Arsim's food, but I knew to refuse would be an insult. I took a seat on the floor and was given a small black bowl filled with a concoction of beans, rice and flour. As I ate, my eye feel on one of Arsim's children- a boy about seven. He was painfully thin, and wearing a grubby, baggy pair of boxer shorts that seemed to be the only item of clothing he owned. His younger brothers and sisters appeared to be even more frail than he.
Looking at these children, I had a sudden and clear insight. There's no way they're going to make it through the winter without a real roof over their heads. I've got to find a way to help these people rebuild their homes. But how?
"There's too much bureaucracy, John," the people at ARC told me. "The supplies are available, but it takes money to pay for them, and getting that money through official channels isn't easy."
Easy or not, I was determined to try my best. I started attending daily U.S. Army refugee relief meetings in Kosovo, hoping to heat about new sources of help. At one these meetings, an Army spokesperson announced that proposals were being accepted for five million dollars in the U.S. Department of Defense grants for rehabilitation projects throughout the region.
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.
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."
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.