“People ask me why I go back every year. How can you not go back?”.
While Habitat for Humanity houses keep popping up all over Marion County, some volunteers prefer to take their building skills to foreign soil. Such is the case with Charlie Takesian.
Once a year, Takesian, a widower, packs a suitcase and travels overseas to help needy people get a roof over their heads through short-term mission trips with the Americus, Georgia-based Fuller Housing Center.
For Takesian, who is of Armenian descent, it had to be Armenia, where, in Dec. 7, 1988, a major earthquake killed 25,000 people and left thousands homeless. Many families ended up living in the metal shipping containers that brought supplies in after the earthquake, he said.
“They were living in a tin box. That’s all they had,” he said. “The earthquake crushed their houses and apartments.”
More tragedy came to the Armenian villagers in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union.
“While the Soviets were there, these people were working,” Takesian said. “They bought this little piece of land and built a house. But when the Soviets pulled out, there was no work.”
At 82, Takesian recently completed his twelfth mission trip. Despite having had six heart bypasses a couple of years ago, he hasn’t strayed from his annual commitment. So far he has helped build 26 homes and a 24-unit condominium.
As he poured over color photos from his past trips, Takesian reminisced about the villagers he met and the team of workers that labored alongside him, digging ditches, moving rocks and laying heavy stone two stories high. For some homes, they used hollow Styrofoam blocks and poured concrete inside. At the end of the project, the village priest shows up with salt, water, bread and, sometimes, a bottle of wine, and he blesses the home, Takesian said.
“It’s very rewarding,” he said. “When we go back the following year, we usually go back to the homes we worked on and you should see the people. They’re so happy, because they’ve been living in these metal containers and it gets so hot in the summer and so cold in the winter. They were using a community bathroom. Some had running water. Some did not. Then they get a house and it’s like moving into the Taj Mahal. It’s really amazing to see the difference in their faces.”
Takesian spoke fondly about helping a woman who had lost one of her children when an explosive device blew up in the little boy’s hand. Her husband, an alcoholic, also had died, leaving her with three children to raise. Takesian’s team helped build their house.
“I went back the following year,” he said. “When we pulled up in the van, she was outside looking for me. She ran up and hugged me and invited me inside her home. I could see the transformation. Last year she was shriveled up with grief. Now she’s smiling. She’s got a house and a toilet and a kitchen. She was so excited and she wanted to show me.”
Founded in 2005 by the late Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda, who also founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976, the Fuller Housing Center works in 80 locations in North America and in 16 countries throughout the world.
Fuller Housing operates much the same as Habitat for Humanity, which requires the homeowner to pay a mortgage and to give several hours of sweat equity. The organization also provides a 30-year, interest-free mortgage.
Takesian travels with a group from Racine, Wisconsin. In a phone interview, Nick Akgulian, a volunteer from Racine, spoke of Takesian’s dogged dedication.
“He’s pretty incredible,” said Akgulian. “The man wants to work. He’s not happy unless he’s got a shovel in his hand. He’s a really upbeat, positive, cool guy.”
Their team leader, Yeprem Kelegian, a retired priest in the Armenian Church, said his group is usually restricted to local parishioners, but he invited Takesian to join them.
“What Charlie gets off on is seeing these beautiful families finally living in a real house,” said Kelegian. “Anywhere we go, people are just delighted to see him. They gush over him and embrace him. Charlie’s just a simple person who loves people. He works hard and, on top of it all, he has this gentle tone.”
The needs go beyond four walls and a roof. Like many of his teammates, Takesian often donates money for supplies, and he stays alert to other needs that come up. He helped a deaf girl get hearing aids that restored her hearing. And every year he takes two laptop computers with him so the youth can learn to use a computer, he said.
“It’s a trip that, as long as I’m physically able to do it, I’ll do it,” Takesian said. “I pay my own way — air fare, hotels, meals — and I always take extra money with me and give to some of the poor people. You give them $10 and it’s like giving you a thousand dollars, they’re so grateful.”
Takesian is planning to return to Armenia in July 2019.
“People ask me why I go back every year,” he said. “How can you not go back? We all have a reason to go over there. When we’re all finished and go back home, everybody says the same thing. ‘I’m so glad I went to give these people a place to live.’ It’s a great feeling.”