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When the Rev. Ricardo Alvarado, pastor of the Hispanic congregation at First Baptist Church of Galax, visited a halfway house in Costa Rica in March, he saw something he didn't know existed in his own country — a poorly pieced-together structure made from whatever wood and metal could be found.
The floors were dirt and there were wood-sided outhouses nearby.
Members of First Baptist Church of Galax, Hillsville Christian Church, First Baptist Church of Hillsville and Cornerstone Community Church in Galax are coming together to fix that situation.
They are raising money to build a men's dormitory and will visit Costa Rica from July 4-15 to get it started.
They will hold an auction tomorrow, Saturday, at First Baptist Church of Galax at 11 a.m. to raise funds for their trip.
The Casa Betel halfway house — or Bethel House — houses 45 men, with 44 dealing with substance abuse and another who was paralyzed after being hit by a car.
Pictures taken by Alvarado show men sleeping in makeshift beds, both in and outside of the facility; cooking their food over wood fires; and growing their own crops of pineapples, bananas and mangos to sell at their local farmers' market.
The quadriplegic is pushed around in a plastic lawn chair with wheels that have been screwed to the legs. He is in need of a wheel chair, physical therapy and medication.
Although the men are addicts, they don't have the means for an actual recovery program. Instead, they turn to the Bible for strength and hope. They remain at the residence for a year.
These men come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Some were carpenters, welders or leatherworkers, but have lost everything due to addiction.
“I didn't know we had places like that in Costa Rica. For the poor conditions, it was like a jail there, which aren't like the jails here,” said Alvarado, who once worked as a businessman in San Jose, Costa Rica, before moving to Texas in the 1990s and then to Galax to serve as a pastor. His wife, Maria, served as a Spanish teacher in San Jose. “God touched my heart when I saw this place.”
His daughter Eugenia, who was born in Costa Rica and makes frequent trips there, noted that most parts of the country that she has seen thrive on tourists visiting beaches and volcanos and from the export of bananas and pineapples.
There, it is 75 degrees year-round.
She, too, has never seen such unlivable conditions.
Eugenia Alvarado said the director of Casa Betel was suffering from alcohol addiction and turned to God for the cure a couple of years ago, with no financial support. It started with just eight men on his 10-acre farm.
To live there, each person pays $60, but that's all they can afford since most have lost their jobs.
“Some didn't have a purpose in life and didn't care about life,” said Eugenia. “Taking care of the man with needs gave them a purpose in life.”
While in Costa Rica a couple of months ago, Ricardo Alvarado was urged by a friend to visit the recovery center, located in Orotina — about 30 minutes from the beach and 45 minutes from San Jose. Having a list of duties to accomplish before he returned to the U.S., the pastor told her that he only had a couple of hours to spare.
“I ended up staying four extra days there,” Alvarado said. “I started counseling and helping. I didn't feel right leaving with all the needs still there.”
In such poor conditions, the facility was just a few short weeks from being shut down by the health department.
Alvarado had gone to Costa Rica on a mission trip to take care of an orphanage, but he came back to the United States on a different assignment in mind.
“Our church wants to help,” Alvarado told the director of the halfway house. “How can we help?”
The director told Alvarado that they needed a dormitory. “'Maybe our church can't help with that,' I thought,” Alvarado said. “It just seemed too big for us.”
But when he returned home, he told Eugenia and her boyfriend, Scott Larrowe, about the place he visited and the need there. That same night, Larrowe sat down and began to sketch out a 10-bedroom dorm made for 60 people and a place for indoor restrooms. That's when Alvarado's vision came to light.
Larrowe then worked with his friend Richard Ingram, an architect in Floyd, to come up with a professional drawing.
Alvarado, his family and the mission team will set out to begin the construction in July, calling it Project Nehemiah.
“We're trying to build this the most economical way possible,” said Alvarado, as he describes how the facility will be constructed. The walls and floors will be made with slabs of concrete, much like sound barriers seen on well-traveled highways, said Alvarado. Each piece has to be made perfectly for it to work, and working with large slabs of concrete can be dangerous, he noted.
The men living there will help the mission team of 18 to construct the facility, which will be handicap-accessible.
They also hope to build a vocational workshop to allow residents to teach their trades to each other, so that once they recover, they can return to work.
“When we started with a vision two months ago, we started with zero,” said Alvarado. Along with his family and church members, he has set out to raise about $35,000. So far, they have raised $14,000 through various fundraisers. “God is providing wonderful help. We're praying for the rest. We're just really coming together here and there.”
This effort has truly been a community effort, said Eugenia.
“Health officials have said since plans are being made, they will come back in July and take a look at them,” he said. “The vision has given them hope to stay open, and the word is being spread throughout town.”
Also, a business in Richmond will donate a wheelchair specific to the Casa Betel resident's needs.
A man in Costa Rica that heard the news is providing equipment and workers for the project; another business there will provide gravel; and a Doubletree hotel near the facility will donate some beds.
Alvarado said the missionaries will take Bibles for the residents and they hope to provide funds for some physical therapy, medication and nutrition for the disabled man.
Also on the July trip and on future trips, Sam Bartlett, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church, will provide counseling; local doctor David McPherson will provide a basic medical clinic; and Larrowe's father Harlos and brother Gary will show residents how to live off the land.
Missionaries will also provide a Bible school for local children and hot meals for the residents of Casa Betel.
“Because of the climate there, they can grow crops anytime if they are provided with the right technique and equipment,” said Harlos Larrowe, who helped install an irrigation system on a mission trip to Nicaragua.
Larrowe, who attends Hillsville First Christian Church, said the churches in the area have developed a rich partnership and are crossing traditional denominational boundaries to help others.
“Mission trips are a perfect opportunity to meet others' needs,” he said. “We're helping them become more successful in bettering each other. When you go on a mission, it doesn't matter about education or skill level. If you can smile or shake someone's hand, you will make a difference.”
First Baptist Church of Galax has hosted several luncheon fundraisers for the trip, but the upcoming auction is one of the biggest, said Eugenia. And businesses have been willing to donate. The auction includes furniture, appliances, tools, vacation lodging, gift certificates and more.
Donations are still being taken for the auction.
“We have had such a great response from the Twin Counties and other areas that are supporting the cause,” she said.
Local auctioneer Matthew LaRaviere will also donate his services. Concessions will be available.
Pastor Alvarado said he invites all churches and individuals to be a part of this project in any way — by going on a mission trip or making donations.
“Maybe an electrician here would like to donate funds to purchase wiring there, or a concrete company will donate money to purchase the concrete there,” he said, noting that costs in the U.S. and Costa Rica are similar. “Why not give hope to those trying to get on their feet?”