After returning from Sierra Leone, where he had helped organize the construction of a new health clinic and school, Dara Colleary, a project manager with Consigli Construction of Milford, told his wife about the experience.
"Kind of halfway through the description I said, 'The heck with it, we've just got to go there.' "
Colleary did return for a visit with his wife, spending time with local partners in the project and strengthening a growing web of human connections between the West African nation and the Worcester area.
Over the past year, the Worcester-based Seven Hills Foundation helped build the clinic and school, with technical and financial support from Consigli. Seven Hills also collaborated closely with the local organization Zion Ministries and with the 13 communities that the facilities will serve. In May, representatives from the Worcester-area organizations participated in the opening of the school, clinic and a new nutrition center and water well.
The effort to offer needed services in and around Bo, Sierra Leone's second-largest city, began with personal ties.
Employees of Seven Hills who are immigrants from the area approached the nonprofit emerging international arm, Seven Hills Global Outreach, about doing work there. Soon, Seven Hills CEO David Jordan made a visit to the area, along with students he teaches in a hands-on social entrepreneurship class at Worcester's Clark University.
Seven Hills formed relationships with local organizations and began making plans. Once work was underway, Worcester-based immigrants from Sierra Leone began swinging by the projects sites when they visited family in their home country, bringing supplies and meeting with the local partners.
"A basis of a lot of our connections, even though this is work, it's really based on the human condition and the desire to do good work," said Ashley Emerson Gilbert, director of Seven Hills Global Outreach.
The Global Outreach is less than three years old, but it's already provided assistance in a number of developing countries, including Brazil, Haiti and Kenya. Gilbert said its work is almost always driven by Seven Hills employees' connections to their home countries.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world and is still recovering from a brutal civil war that ended a decade ago. When Seven Hills staff first made contact with local organizations in Bo, the second largest city, they learned about the need for health and education resources in the area. Colleary said Jordan made a video about the area which he shared with Anthony Consigli, the president of Consigli Construction.
"Anthony said, 'Yes, sign me up,'" Colleary said.
The project was not a simple one for Consigli. Colleary said he and others from the company who participated in the work had to deal with limited supplies of raw materials, government red tape, a lack of basic facilities like consistent electricity and a business culture in which deals are often of the handshake, not signed contract, variety.
Colleary said one way Consigli helped to deal with some of the challenges was by consulting with development agencies in the area and learning about a technique that uses limited raw materials. Developed by a contactor in North Carolina, it involves making cement blocks similar to huge Legos that can be assembled quickly by people without specialized skills.
Gilbert said Zion Ministries brought people from the area together to clear the land and do the physical work of building the new structures.
"They hauled in cement on their backs and did everything by hand," she said.
Both Seven Hills and Consigli plan to continue their relationship with the school and clinic, but Gilbert said part of their work is to help the facilities become sustainable rather than dependent on international donations. Right now, she said, Seven Hills is providing technical support for a business development plan that may include opening a bakery, charging for some services and developing partnerships with the government and area hospitals. It's not easy, given how dependent many service providers in the country are on international aid.
"Sierra Leone is one of our biggest successes, but also one of our greatest challenges," Gilbert said.