Helping hand: Attorney helps build house for needy family in Mexico

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Calli Duncan traded legal briefs for hammers and nails, when she spent a week in Baja, Mexico, on a mission trip to build a house from the ground up for a needy family.

“I’ve always been a handy person,” she says. “My dad is handy, and as an only child I was always his helper.”

A partner at Foley & Mansfield in Detroit, Duncan joined 11 other Foley & Mansfield employees from across the U.S on the trip in early May, and also took her 15-year-old daughter, Claire. This was Duncan’s second such experience; a couple of years ago, she and her husband Ian went on the first Foley & Mansfield mission trip, to build smokeless stoves in homes in Durango, a rural mountain community a few hours outside Guatemala City.  

“The experience was incredible,” she says. “It put everything into perspective: one-room homes for multiple generations, dirt floors, corn stalk walls.  They had so little and were so welcoming and generous. I knew I had to take each of my daughters on similar trips. It was during this trip I learned to cut sheet metal with a machete – the perfect all-purpose tool!”

In Baja, the team stayed in a dorm built for mission groups.

“We were a small group, and with only seven people in the women’s side, there was plenty of room, but we also had plenty to do as we had to put in ‘KP’ duty, helping to cook and clean in the kitchen for breakfast and dinner,” Duncan says.

With no one on the team fluent in Spanish – including the organizer – the language barrier could have been a problem.

“It’s rare for anyone to speak English there, and sometimes they don’t even speak Spanish, but only tribal languages, but our organizer was confident we would be able to get by with sign language,” Duncan says.

“When we got to the site, however, we knew Karma was on our side – the homeowner had spent some time in the States and spoke pretty good English. What are the odds?”

Each day began early with a 10-minute drive to the house site, a very large flat parcel of desert land being sold off in 10-by-20-meter lots.  

“No roads, just dirt, dirt and more desert dirt,” Duncan says.  

On their first arrival at the house site, the team found a concrete slab about the size of a two-car garage and a pile of 2 x 4s, wood panels, tarpaper, and shingles.
“That was it,” Duncan says.

The organizers had a green binder filled with laminated pages of plans and diagrams from which the team got measurements to cut the lumber. But unlike the Guatemala trip, where everything was done by hand, Duncan and her colleagues had a gas-powered generator to power circular saws and reciprocating saws.  

Work kicked off on the Monday with framing the walls, two at a time, on the concrete slab, then nailing on the siding before building the next two walls on top of the first two. The four roof panels were built nearby on the ground. While the lumber was cut with power saws, hammering had to be accomplished by hand – everyone was required to bring his or her own hammer.  

“We calculated we hammered over 1,100 nails between us, not including the countless bent and misaligned nails that had to be done more than once,” Duncan says.

All four walls and two of four roof panels were completed on the first day. On Tuesday, team members raised the walls; put up the roof panels; hung trim, and painted the trim. The next day, they finished the roof, including tarpaper, tar and shingles; built the internal walls, counter and bed platforms; and started painting the exterior.

On Thursday, they finished painting, inside and out – including the outhouse and shower; and installed the sink fed by the water tank on the roof – also installed by the team – which will be filled with deliveries by a water truck.

The curtains Duncan and her daughter had made and brought from home were hung with care.

“Claire and I had picked out fabric, choosing complementary tropical blues and turquoise prints,” Duncan says. “When we got there, without even knowing we had brought curtains, the homeowner chose the turquoise color from the color card for the outside, and a light, Caribbean blue for the internal wall. Once again, Karma was on our side. It all went together beautifully.”

After Thursday’s work was completed, a “Dedication Ceremony” was held, with each team member saying a few words, before the keys were handed over to the new homeowners.  

“It was very emotional and wonderful,” Duncan says. “We then hosted a ‘neighborhood’ party where we served hot dogs, had games and activities for the kids and passed out donated clothing collected by our offices.”

In their downtime, the team went to the beach, and also sampled local food – including a stand serving “the best fish tacos I’ve ever tasted,” Duncan says.

“We spent a lot of time at the various taco stands. I cannot emphasis how good the food was.  This was real, authentic Mexican food – apparently, we’re doing it all wrong.”  

The team also enjoyed a lunch of beef tamales and beans, courtesy of the new homeowner, in the yard of a cousin’s house in the same neighborhood.

Serving on mission trips is only a small part of Duncan’s philanthropic service. A member of the Greek women’s philanthropic organization Daughters of Penelope, she serves on the committee for her chapter’s biggest annual fund-raiser, The Festival of Tables, held each October at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial. The group invites hostesses to decorate more than 30 themed tables and display them for an early afternoon viewing as well as a dinner viewing that includes a fashion show and auction.  

“Part of our proceeds goes the Liggett Breast Center in the St. John Health System – we even have breast cancer survivors as our fashion show models,” Duncan notes.

She also helps chair an annual Empty Bowls event to benefit Cass Community Social Services through her church, Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in St. Clair Shores.

“We solicit donations of soup from area restaurants and clay bowls from area artists – as well as making some of our own – then organize a simple meal of soup and bread with a bowl to take home to remind you that someone’s bowl is always empty,” she explains. “It’s an honor working with Rev. Fowler at Cass and helping all the good things they do in the City.”

A former stockbroker, Duncan earned her juris doctor, magna cum laude, from Detroit College of Law, with the intention of practicing in the field of securities law, mostly transactional work. At DCL, she enjoyed working on the Moot Court Board, with its appellate advocacy and courtroom arguments, and after graduation, headed into employment and municipality litigation, segueing into asbestos work when the firm needed help with overflow. Currently her practice at Foley & Mansfield is mostly asbestos litigation, but she continues to do work in employment and insurance subrogation.

A native of Grosse Pointe Woods, she and her husband make their home in Grosse Pointe Farms, with daughters Claire, 15, and Kate, 12. In addition to community projects, Duncan plays on two USTA tennis teams, and enjoys knitting, and home decorating projects.

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