December 5, 2010; Source: Union-Tribune | Many nonprofits show great skill in stretching scarce resources to help them accomplish their missions. But for the Long Way Home, the supply of resources to sustain their activities is never in short supply. That’s because the San Diego-based nonprofit teaches people in poor communities how to build things using trash.

For instance, discarded glass bottles are being repurposed for making windows and worn tires are being turned into walls for a vocational school going up in San Juan Comalapa, home to 30,000 in a Mayan area in rural Guatemala. Like the formerly tossed off materials it is being built from, the school itself will have more value than just as a training center. On one hand, it is educating residents in the art of sustainable construction and providing them skills that will hopefully cut unemployment and homelessness. On the other, the project is showing them how to effectively manage waste. “I wanted to do something with a dual purpose: creating jobs while saving the environment,” said Long Way Home founder Matt Paneitz.

You can add yet another benefit from the construction project. It gives people lots of physical exercise. The process of using tires to build walls requires volunteers to lay them horizontally, pack them with dirt and pound them with sledgehammers. The flattened tires are then stacked like brickwork, covered with mud, plastered with stucco, and painted. Though inexpensive, walls made from tires and dirt can take weeks. “No amount of time at the gym prepares you for this type of work,” said Danny Paz, who manages Long Way Home out of San Diego and who also spends several months a year living and working in Guatemala.

When the school opens next year, it will serve about 300 vocational students. In addition to the satisfaction derived from his work, Paneitz’s unique methods for lending a helping hand to poor people recently won him a $10,000 prize in the World Challenge, a global competition sponsored by the BBC and Newsweek to recognize projects or small businesses around the world that show enterprise and innovation at a grassroots level.—Bruce Trachtenberg