The shipping container, the kind one sees on a freight train, appears out of place, sitting alone on the lawn next to a Chester County church, on a quiet stretch of road facing green open fields.
But it will fit right in with other containers as the final piece of a community center for orphans and the families who care for them in a town in South Africa.
“It’ll be wonderful to see kids using this,” said Cammy Brantzeg, a church member who is leading the makeover project with her husband, Tony, both of whom were trained as actuaries and have no professional construction experience.
They said they feel called to help.
During the next several weeks, members of Hopewell United Methodist Church in Downingtown will convert and partition the once-nondescript container – 40 feet long, 8 feet high, and 8 feet wide. It will house a kitchen and a room for tutoring, after-school activities, and medical care.
More than 100 church members, including the Brantzegs and their two sons, have traveled to South Africa in the last few years to build houses and retrofit containers in collaboration with Mosaic, a nonprofit in South Africa. It is dedicated to providing housing, education, and jobs to create self-sustaining communities of families caring for orphans. This is the first time church members have converted a container at their Downingtown site.
They are following the lead of other groups across the country that have transformed containers at home to fill needs overseas, involving members of their communities who can’t make the trips to other countries. Groups also usually fill the containers with donated goods.
Homes of Living Hope, a nonprofit in Colorado, has helped groups in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Wyoming, and elsewhere connect with aid agencies and renovate 11 containers, for a safe house in Denver and for use in several African countries and Mexico City.
Bart Wear was an industrial contractor when he cofounded the nonprofit in 2004. He said that he and his cofounders realized that renovating containers could engage people in a tangible way with developing nations.
Students at Delran High School in Burlington County converted a container into a library and educational resource center and shipped it to the town of Aloi, Uganda, last year.
Students in a home improvement class at Bridgewater-Raritan High School in Somerset County, N.J., have built a four-room medical facility for the town of Pader, Uganda, and a birthing center and classrooms for Aloi. Next school year, they plan to build a kitchen for Aloi.
Members of the Lutheran Church of God’s Love in Newtown, Bucks County, transformed a container into a medical clinic and shipped it to Kisumu, Kenya. It arrived in April.
Susan McDonnell, who organized that project, has been advising members of the Downingtown church on their container.
“They heard about ours and are doing one. I hope another church hears about theirs and does one,” McDonnell said. “There’s so much need, and this will be a tremendous impact on the community where it’s going.”
Len Herman, a teacher and curriculum supervisor in the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District, said the container renovations also are “eye-opening” experiences for students.
“For a small little town like Bridgewater or Raritan, we can never step foot there, but still change people’s lives,” Herman said.
Last month, a large flatbed truck arrived at Hopewell Methodist and backed up through a gap that a parishioner had widened in the hedges. It dropped off the container, which the church bought from Sea Box Inc., based in Cinnaminson, Burlington County.
Children have started to paint the outside, and church members have put up some drywall inside. They expect to finish in mid-August, when the container will resemble traditional rooms, and then it will be shipped. A team plans to travel to South Africa in November to cut out three windows and two doors and assemble pieces inside.
The container will join five others to become the Mosaic Paarl Valley Community Center in Wellington, about an hour outside of the parliamentary capital, Cape Town. They will form a rectangle and border a courtyard.
A small group from West Chester and a group from Montana with Chester County ties also helped build the center.
Church members are attempting to raise the more than $22,000 they will need to cover costs of buying, renovating and shipping their container.
The Rev. Steve Morton, the pastor, said the extra cost of renovating the container at home is worth it to get more people involved.
“It will pay off in all sorts of ways,” he said.