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NGO founder visits Badgett Playhouse

By Leanne Fuller lfuller@paducahsun.com

The Badgett Playhouse in Grand Rivers has been raising money to help build homes and schools in Guatemala for about four years. The theater's current project has already raised so much so fast that the founder of the non-profit for whom the money is raised visited the theater this weekend.

Badgett Playhouse's Bill Minihan explained that the theater began raising money for Constru Casa - a non-governmental organization that works to provide housing, health and educational projects and other programs in Guatemala - when he visited the Central American country in 2010.

Minihan, who had housed a Guatemalan exchange student attending Murray State University, intended to speak with folks at some NGOs because the theater was interested in helping build classrooms there.

"This is the only NGO that would take some time a speak with me," Minihan recalled. This despite the fact that, he said, Constru Casa mostly builds houses.

The organization connected Badgett Playhouse with a village in northern Guatamala, Vijolom II, that needed classrooms. Minihan said when he and his wife visited Vijolom II that fall, he saw that the village had 11 teachers educating more than 300 students in what he described as "lean-to buildings" with dirt floors.

"And it was one of those things where each classroom was going to be about $5,000," Minihan recalled.

By accepting donations at the concession stand and hosting special shows for which all the ticket proceeds went to the project, Badgett Playhouse funded the construction of eight concrete and metal classrooms that Minihan said hold up much better in the rainy season than the previous structures by the project's conclusion in January.

"All of the money came from Badgett Playhouse patrons. That's what's been so cool about this thing," Minihan said.

Minihan explained why the playhouse is especially intent on helping build schools in Guatemala.

"For them, especially for the female population, school can literally save their life." Minihan said, "Because it saves them from a life of hard labor or - in the case of an educated female - it gives them a life of getting to be their own person rather than be subject to someone else's."

Minihan said the theater's current project with the NGO, which began a few months ago, entails raising around $100,000 to build not only a school, but also 22 houses for the community of Chutinamit.

Minihan visited Chutinamit during a trip he took to Vijolom II with a small group in January to help finish the construction of the school there. He said Chutinamit was struck by a landslide in 2010 caused by Tropical Storm Agatha; the residents were displaced to a soccer field in a nearby town, where they'd been living out the intervening four years in tents.

Minihan said the project was initially expected to take three to five years. But, because of special shows the playhouse has held since the spring and other donations, the theater is already halfway to its fundraising goal, and construction on houses in Chutinamit has already begun.

And that's why, Minihan said, Constru Casa founder and director Caroline van Heerde came for a visit Saturday to say "thank you," and meet the people who've given to her cause.

Van Heerde founded Constru Casa in 2004 after having worked on other projects for different organizations there since 2000. She previously worked as a civil engineer in the Netherlands, and Minihan said she's managed to build more than 600 houses in the 10 years since starting Constru Casa.

Minihan said as part of her visit van Heerde gave a short presentation on Constru Casa during Badgett Playhouse's gospel show Sunday. 

He said he's already thinking about the next phase of the Chutinamit project.

"What we will do now is raise the money for the school," Minihan said. "The first phase of the houses has been built, and now it's going to cost approximately $13,000...and we're going to do that from the course of now until the end of the year."

Minihan also plans to take a group of a dozen or so people to Chutinamit this year to help with construction because, as he explained, "You have to see it for yourself to understand the need."

Contact Leanne Fuller, a Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8653.

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