When Ava Swafford approached fellow Community UMC member Sass Tracy about building desks for schools in Nicaragua, he said sure. It would be something to do.
“If you aren’t doing something, you’ll just die,” he said.
Swafford had come to the right guy. Tracy was a farmer in the New Brunswick area all of his life, except for the part where he was in the Korean War. His family’s northern-Missouri family farm consisted of field crops and about 1,200 pecan trees. During the times of the year that were less labor intensive, Tracy did carpentry projects. In the home that he lives in now in Columbia, he has built most of the furniture, including the kitchen cabinets.
So, he certainly has the skills. And now that he is retired, has sold the farm and lives in Columbia, he has the time. Not that he doesn’t have his challenges. He is 86 years old, and he’s legally blind. But his wife Yvonne drives him where he needs to go, and you would never know by the quality of his work that his vision isn’t 20/20.
Some people might be concerned about him using power tools, but he said it isn’t really an issue.
“I’m more careful with the saws now than I was before I lost my sight,” he said.
The desks he is building are of his own design, and they break down into their own individual boxes, made out of the desktop and bench, for easy shipping. They consist of 18 pieces of wood, 20 nuts and bolts, and 50 screws. If he would build one at a time, each one would take him about three days to build. Instead, he cuts enough pieces at once to make 12, turning his basement shop into a one-man assembly line. With this method, he can finish 12, complete with varnish, in six to seven days.
“It just depends on how hard I want to work,” Tracy said. “I don’t work too hard.”
But he keeps at it, and it has added up. The last round of desks he has completed brings his total number up to 483.
The efficiency of his operation doesn’t produce a lot of scraps, but the scraps he has he turns into high-quality wooden toys, some of which have very elaborate designs, including combines and car haulers.
“Anybody can do anything if you set your mind to it,” he said.
Although Sass isn’t his given name, it’s what he was always known as. Sass’s brother James was always called Buck. His brother Wallace was always called Cotton. His brother Richard was always called Richard.
The desks go from Tracy’s basement to the nearby Container Project, which shares facilities and management with Mobility Worldwide, formerly known as the PET project. From there a container is loaded for Nicaragua a couple of times a year.
Megan Munzlinger, Development Director at Rainbow Network, said the organization has about 350 schools in Nicaragua. They have school sessions in the afternoon to supplement government provided schools that are held in the morning. Some children go to both, but many are only able to attend Rainbow Network schools because the government schools are not close enough to their homes.
“We focus on literacy, and in some cases it is the only place these children have to learn to read and write,” Munzlinger said. “We may have up to seven of our schools in an area for each government school.”
Some of the schools are set up in churches, some are using government school buildings, others are just on people’s front porches or in huts. Tracy is the sole source they have for desks. In many cases, his desks means the children aren’t just sitting on the floor or in the dirt while they are working on their studies.
His church Community UMC, has a strong relationship with Nicaragua via the Rainbow Network, building villages there and sending multiple mission teams. Rev. Curtis Olsen said it has been rewarding to see Tracy’s desks in action.
“Sass is an incredible craftsman when it comes to woodworking,” Olsen said. “Every time we stop by a Rainbow Network school, we see some of his desks in use.”