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“You are who you are by the opportunities you are given and what you do with them.” These are the words of someone who started out with next to nothing and now, nearly 30 years later, is dedicated to easing the hardships of others. And he’s making sure engineering and construction undergrads in Associated Builders and Contractors’ (ABC) student chapter at the University of North Florida (UNF) seize this opportunity to change the lives of children 900 miles away.

Ebenson Verdule was born in Port-de-Paix, Haiti, where poverty and family struggles led him to live on the streets for about five years starting at age 7. As a determined and hardworking young man, he made his way to the United States and eventually graduated with an engineering degree from UNF in 2014. Unable to forget the pain of his past homelessness and hunger, Verdule founded Mercy Land Orphanage, Inc., a nonprofit Christian humanitarian organization working primarily with children who have lost their parents and close relatives and are destitute on the streets of Port-de-Paix. 

Mercy Land Orphanage has 30 acres of land in Haiti and 17 children already enrolled in its programs—with thousands more in need of help. To address the challenge of housing these children, Verdule thought “inside” the box.

“I envisioned a sustainable community for the orphanage,” he says. “From that perspective, shipping containers are vastly available today and used to transport almost everything. They have great structural integrity and can last many decades if cared for properly and shielded from corrosion and other potential defects.”

Crowley Maritime Corporation donated the first two shipping containers Mercy Land Orphanage needs, and will transport the finished products from Florida to Haiti. To refurbish the containers, each of which will house six children and a caregiver, Verdule is enlisting the help of his alma mater.

“I really wanted to get the UNF construction students involved in this project because it would enhance their book skills through practice and get them engaged in making a difference in our world,” Verdule says. “It has really been a pleasure working with the group. They have sacrificed many Saturdays to come to the worksite and help build these containers. I am very grateful for their courage, work ethic and focus on safety.”

About 20 students are performing the labor of outfitting the containers with bedrooms, bathrooms, communal dining space, electricity and climate control systems. The university has given the ABC student chapter a portion of its construction lot to perform the renovations, with another five to 10 engineering students completing studies on more economical and energy-efficient methods of building additional container orphanages in the future.

The group began work about a year ago—starting with rust mitigation and primer painting, followed by installation of wall and floor systems—and hopes to have the containers up and running for shipment to Haiti by the end of the summer.

“We were elated to take on this task,” says Kyle Stovall, past president of the ABC UNF student chapter. “The UNF construction management program has completed four shipping containers in the past for efforts in Chile, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and I took on this project with the intention of implementing it back into an annual transitional learning opportunity for UNF construction management students.”

Once the containers arrive in Haiti, they will be set on foundations currently being constructed and then connected to a rainwater harvesting cistern. A few walls will be installed to enclose the living areas, with a roof added overhead.

Procuring materials donations has been a big challenge, but several companies have come through to provide everything from interior and exterior paint to doors, windows and bathroom vanities. Additionally, HD Supply, Miller Electric and Spectra Contract Flooring provided all required plumbing, electrical and flooring materials. The UNF construction management department donated many tools for the job, and Barton Mallow Company provided the students’ personal protective equipment.

“We have high hopes for making an impact with all our endeavors and have plans to expand the ABC UNF student chapter to provide more hands to complete additional community service projects,” Stovall says.

Verdule lives in Jacksonville, Fla., for about 10 months of the year and has plans to move to Haiti permanently. He continues to work to secure support for other Mercy Land Orphanage projects, including a clinic, school and more container homes. 

Joanna Masterson is senior editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email masterson@abc.org or follow @ConstructionMag.

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