The Longest Install
By Richard Wright
PhotoS COURTESY: ©2018 Tom Gross.
Ed. Note: Tom Gross is the second-generation co-owner and president of Fireside Stone & Patio in Ellicott City, Maryland. This is his story.
First trip: Gross finishing window.
It begins in 2011 when Tom Gross was having trouble connecting with a current customer who was interested in purchasing another appliance. On any date that Gross had open, the customer said he would be out of the country. Some people travel a lot, thought Gross, but this guy travels all the time.
Eventually, he learned the customer was setting up an orphanage in Tanzania, and that piqued his interest. You see, Gross, his wife, Beth, and his partner Steve had a desire to do something other than creating income from the business. They wanted to use their talents for something more, perhaps something different.
“I asked the customer if it was cold there,” says Gross. “Yes,” he said, “it gets pretty cold. We’re right in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, which is the highest peak in Africa (19,341 ft.), there’s even a glacier cap on the top.”
Gross asked if a wood stove could be used in a place like that, and the customer broke down in tears. He said he and his wife had been trying to come up with some alternative heating system for the orphanage. They had been using kerosene – when they could find it. The thought of a wood stove was like manna from heaven.
So Gross told him, “I’m going to make this happen. I’m not sure how, but let me work on it.”
Bringing the first Jøtul stove in.
Raising the Funds
Gross made a few calls. The first was to his friends at Jøtul, who immediately said they would provide two wood stoves. Next was DuraVent, who told him to send over a material list; they donated about 70 to 80 ft. of Class A chimney.
That was easy enough. The challenge came when Gross focused on getting all the parts to Africa. Luckily, he found someone who sold him a 20-ft. sea container at a good price. In went all the “stuff” for the project, but there was still a gaping hole to fill.
Gross found a fellow who was a surplus manager of school equipment for one of the counties in Maryland. They filled the rest of the container with tables, desks, chairs, chalkboards, old computers, a playground set, a lawn mower, chain saws, and other stuff needed for construction, and also stuff that the kids might need in the compound.
The container was shipped over, and Gross and his wife spent about six months saving up money for airfare.
A site-made ladder was needed for the job.
Meanwhile, the director of the orphanage had set up a team from Maryland that went over to work on the premises of the compound. That reassured Gross that he would have some help with the installation of the stoves; that’s why just he and his wife flew over.
They were picked up at the airport and driven 45 minutes to the orphanage, called Havilha, where Gross asked if everything had arrived in good shape.
“We have some bad news,” they were told. “The container is stuck in customs and they want $10,000 to release it. We had just spent 16 hours in a plane and $6,000 on airfare. I was pretty angry.”
Who wouldn’t be? The problem was characterized as “miscommunication.”
To his credit, Gross shook off the anger and concentrated on what could be done during the 10 days left until the flight back home. All he had was his backpack and the clothes on his body. Everything else had been packed in the container.
“We pooled the cash we had, walked into the village, and did an extreme mud hut makeover at this lady’s house. We put a coat of Portland cement on the inside and outside. We installed a metal roof. We painted it yellow and put two doors and two windows on, and poured a concrete floor.
Frazier Mathes, director of the orphanage. He manages his job primarily from the States.
“It was a change in direction, but it was not in vain,” says Gross. “Yet I was feeling sorry for myself, wondering why this had happened to me. At that point I noticed two other people from the village who had been helping us. Here I am wearing my $120 Timberland sandals, and one of the guys had no shoes, the other guy had smashed one-liter plastic coke bottles, and sewn a string through them to make sandals. They were happy. It was a wake-up call for me.”
Gross flew back to the U.S. and resumed life as usual. He thought he would never see the container, or the stoves, or the chimney, or his clothes again.
Fast forward two years. Gross gets a call from the director, saying, “It finally made it. It has been unloaded and everything is there. Nothing was stolen.” It seems the container was in the way at customs, so they finally accepted $100 to release it. “If you ever get a chance,” said the director, “we would love to have you come back and finish the job.”
At first, Gross said, “Heck, no. I wasted all that time and I’m not going back again.” But after a few years it started working on him. Here was a job he had not finished. One of these days, he thought, I’ll go back and finish it.
So he called the director and said, “I would like to do it next summer.”
This time his wife stayed behind and his 20-year-old daughter Adde, his store manager Steve Hook and his daughter Hailey joined him.
“There was another team there painting and doing other work to get the whole facility ready for a big dedication in the village. The two stoves, by the way, were going into a learning center, a very large building (about 4,000 sq. ft.) in the compound. It’s really a trade school for the village. They teach the kids sewing, woodworking, computer repair, cell phone repair, as well as regular school courses.”
At the building’s dedication ceremony, house mothers and orphans pose in their colorful clothing.
So Gross got the two stoves out of storage, took an inventory of parts, and went to work. In two and a half days they had both chimneys up and both wood stoves installed using basic hand tools that they had brought with them. Other tools, such as ladders, were fabricated on site.
“It turned out better than we expected,” says Gross. “We had a great time connecting with the kids, plus a little free time. So Steve and I took our daughters on a safari for a day. It was wonderful.”
The village is called Arusha, and it’s in Tanzania within eyesight of Mt. Kilimanjaro. It’s a village and a project that Gross, Steve and the two daughters will never forget.
“Maybe reading this will motivate some other people to do something out of their comfort zone,” says Gross, “something that will help others.”