When Rhode Island native John Carnevale was dropped off in a poverty-stricken village in rural Uganda in 2009 by the nonprofit organization SOVHEN Uganda, he never could have guessed that he would become forever bound to the community, its people and its livelihood.
During his volunteer work with the nonprofit, where Carnevale helped build roads, small houses and other infrastructure in Kankobe Village, he contracted a vicious strain of malaria, confining him to bed rest at a nearby hospital.
“In that hospital, everything hit me,” he said. “I saw these little kids and their families on the floor and I couldn’t do anything about it. It was one of the first times when I felt helpless.”
When he began to recover, he made a promise to a friend, Jeremiah Kimbugwe — who Carnevale helped put through university — that he would return to the village to build a medical center.
“I don’t know if it just hit me right there, and I don’t know how it came out of my mouth, but I ended up coming back to San Diego and thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’” he said.
Although he had a full-time job as a mechanical engineer at Raytheon, Carnevale was committed to keeping his promise, brainstorming ways to save up money for the much-needed medical facility in the village of more than 12,000 people.
“I started sleeping in my car in San Diego, working as an engineer during the day and eating as close to just a couple dollars a day,” he said of his lifestyle over the past two and a half years. “I saved up as much money as I could in a year, plus all the savings I had accumulated up to that point in my life, and I went over there with about $25,000 first to buy all the bricks and hire people.”
By living simply in his little blue Corolla, reserving the bulk of his income entirely for the promised project and focusing his time on putting together architectural diagrams for a medical center and guest house, Carnevale was able to make good on his promise to Kimbugwe, launching into construction in January 2011 and building the two facilities brick by brick — and all without taking a dime from anyone else.
“We were having an economic recession in the United States, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking money off people,” he said. “I wanted to put my money up first and prove that I could do something and make something sustainable before I asked someone for a dollar for a project that I didn’t even know was possible.”
The project, as it turns out, was possible. Since January 2012, the Donna Carnevale Medical Center — a tribute to Carnevale’s mother and role model — has been up and running and has seen thousands of patients in and out of its doors for medical attention, dental care, immunizations, disease prevention and maternity services.
“The past year has been amazing, but it has always been just me up to that point,” he said. “All of a sudden, I wanted to take this thing to a new level and give everyone the opportunity to go out there and experience that entrepreneurship, that giving and that love I was feeling for that country out there.”
That was when D’amours Step was born — a volunteer organization dedicated to empowering communities, villages and individuals around the globe by engineering sustainable solutions for medical care and educational growth, starting with one person, one village and one brick at a time.
The team Carnevale has built on the ground — from the local doctors and dentists to lab techs and midwives – were entirely hand selected and their salaries funded by Carnevale.
“I put together a plan to keep local Ugandans in Uganda, because what happens is you get a degree and you go to greener pastures, like we all do sometimes,” he said. “I wanted to keep local doctors there, so I set up a facility, created wages and started paying people’s salaries.”
He also worked with SOVHEN and the Ministry of Health to ensure all the required certifications and regulations were met and made sure he hired the right people for the job.
“It’s a rural atmosphere. You’re not going to come in everyday like in a hospital in the city and see a thousand people,” he said. “Some days you might see five people. Other days you’ll see 30, so you have to be dealing with the proper individual for the job.”
One such dedicated individual, Carnevale’s good friend and former Encinitas-based doctor of physical therapy, Kinley McCracken, recently quit her job at Scripps Hospital and landed herself in Uganda in late January to prepare D’amours Step for an impending project called “Bricks for Peace” on
Feb. 6, where Carnevale and 20 friends — comprised of medical professionals, engineers and business professionals — will build a maternity ward and dental center over two and a half weeks to meet the community’s needs.
“We’ll be throwing the bricks all by hand — no machinery. We work with builders out there, and I’ve already dumped 40,000 bricks and the materials there,” he said. “[McCracken] is going to be down there setting up some stuff and getting it ready.”
One of the first things the group will be tasked to do is quite literally make their beds.
“Some of the beds in the Camilla guesthouse got eaten by termites, so one of the first things you do when you get off the plane in Africa is you build your bed,” he said.
The group will also sit down with the Ministry of Health and the head of women’s groups to see what issues concern the village as well as determine ways to bring in small business to create a sustainable community.
“They’re getting dropped off into something that’s real, that’s substantial and that has a magnitude that can reach out to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s very complex, but the vision is there for a community — not just a hospital, not just a school.”
Carnevale said the benefit of empowerment for Ugandans and American volunteers is mutual.
“We’re not giving anybody anything. We want to build a relationship and work with them,” he said. “It puts people into perspective. Going on a trip like that sometimes helps you more than you help them. You come back and your life changes, and you want to give so much to make an impact out there.”
Brick by brick, D’amours Step is empowering both Ugandans in need of resources and Americans in need of a purpose. For more information about the organization, visit www.damoursstep.org.
D’amours Step will hold a fundraising party on Feb. 2 at 710 Beach Club in Pacific Beach from 2 to 8 p.m. The pre-Super Bowl bash will include raffles, specials on drinks, a Hawaiian pig roast and a live DJ spinning beats throughout the evening.
“Our goal is to give you six great hours of your life,” said Carnevale. “Put you around some great people, educate you a little bit and just have a jamming time.”
710 Beach Club is located at 710 Garnet Ave.