ohn Finnerty knew in his heart he had done a good deed.
In 2007, the Floridian led a team of Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteers to Macedonia to help renovate a house with Roma home partner Bajram Durmishovksi. The five-member Durmishovski family was living at the time in a single-room dwelling with a dirt floor. There was a hand pump outside for water and an outhouse. Finnerty’s Habitat team helped add two bedrooms, a bathroom with running water, a small kitchen and a living room. They poured a concrete floor.
A good deed, for sure. But the soulful resonance of his volunteerism — Finnerty’s simple act of lending a hand up to someone he previously didn’t know on the other side of the world — didn’t come to him till a year later when he returned for another Macedonia build and visited the Durmishovski family.
“You go back a year later, and they have heat, electricity and water,” Finnerty says. “What struck me most about that visit was they had a daughter who was 2 years old the first year I came. I didn’t see her around, so I asked where she was.”
Finnerty was taken to a bedroom he helped build. The little girl was lying on a comfortable bed. Fast asleep. “That sight — seeing her in there and knowing that she had been sleeping on a mat on a dirt floor in the middle of the winter here — it struck me as a powerful thing,” Finnerty says. As a father of four daughters, he was overwhelmed.
That feeling, he says, of getting to see the results of your work in such a simple, decent way “is the coolest thing in the world.”
Finnerty, who retired last year as president and CEO of Habitat East & Central Pasco County in Florida, has traveled to Macedonia at least nine times since 2007. His special connection with Habitat Macedonia began during a conference in Florida two years before. An acquaintance introduced him to Zoran Kostov, Habitat Macedonia’s national director.
When Finnerty introduced his grandson to Kostov, the man almost broke into tears. At first, Finnerty thought Kostov was merely tired from traveling. But he then learned his grandson looks almost exactly like Kostov’s 2-year-old son. “It just hit me how much people are alike,” Finnerty says. “This man has family, has feelings like I do. We clicked.”
Not long after that meeting, Finnerty was at church and read a verse in the Sunday bulletin involving the Apostle Paul. It was Acts 16:9. “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.”
And Paul went.
“I am not Paul,” Finnerty says. “But I can help.”
His help has included leading multiple Global Village builds to the country.
“I have worked with probably 30 or more families over the years,” he says. “One project I am especially proud of was to build a foundation for an apartment complex in Veles. Three years later, I’m able to be there to see the dedication of that complex. And during those three years, I would go every year and help other families build homes. You look back on that and you go, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good stuff.’”
In 2010, Finnerty was honored with a face-to-face visit with Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov at the presidential summer residence in Ohrid. Finnerty also has been named an honorary board member of Habitat Macedonia.
“John keeps coming back simply because the local people need him, especially those disadvantaged, marginalized or socially excluded,” Kostov says. “And he is there for them one way or another — if not possible through personal volunteering on job site, then through his private donations.”
In 2012, Finnerty spent several months in the country working on a series of Habitat projects, including a water-sanitation program and the renovations of a special-needs facility, an orphanage and a large-scale apartment complex for Kosovo refugees.
“I will stay involved with Macedonia,” the 65-year-old says. His experiences there have changed him.
“I think I am more of a gentle, understanding person than I ever was before,” he says. “I can relate to people in a better way. I can become friends with someone in a different country that I’ve never known before in my life. In a day or two, we are having dinner.
“And we are like family.”