What a great adventure and learning experience for him [the author]. It is one of those books that is hard to put down, once you start reading it.... He [the author] certainly made a difference in the lives that he touched. --Dr. Jerry Seese, Superintendent Saginaw Township Community Schools, September 22, 2009
He's rebuilt schools devastated by an earthquake in the mountain valleys of Pakistan where supplies could only be carried in by sure-footed donkeys. He's worked in the trenches, trying to solve the desperate need for permanent housing in Kabul, the war-ravaged capital of Afghanistan.
He's also built composting latrines the old-fashioned way, shovel in hand, in the Republic of Panama.
At 28, Ben Grostic of Muskegon has turned his back on the corporate world, even though he has a degree in architecture from the University of Michigan, for what he calls a "more rewarding" call into the nonprofit sector.
"I'm an idealist," Grostic says. "I keep thinking: This is how, this is where, the world can get better."
For four years, Grostic served overseas, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama; then on the staff of Shelter for Life International, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit agency committed to rebuilding communities destroyed by conflict and war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"There's such potential to change lives in that kind of work," he says. "If there's a need, that's where I want to be."
He can say the same back home in the "states."
Soon after he returned from Pakistan in 2008, Grostic joined the AmeriCorps, a national agency that places volunteers in community service. He was assigned to work in emergency services at the American Red Cross, serving Muskegon, Oceana and Newaygo counties. He recently left the Red Cross when he was hired as a part-time housing specialist for Every Woman's Place/Webster House.
Through it all, Grostic says, there is "a thread" of consistency -- whether he was living and working out of a tent in Pakistan or living in a hut in Panama or helping the homeless find housing in Muskegon.
Everything he does, he does to advance the goal of "sustainable development" -- a term he defines by quoting the "teach a man to fish" philosophy of self-sufficiency.
"If you can get somebody back on their feet, that's what it's all about," he says.
His overseas' experience gave Grostic "a bigger perspective on life," says Alice Meldrum, director of emergency services at the local Red Cross, who was Grostic's supervisor.
When he was sent to Texas as part of a disaster response team after Hurricane Ike hit in the fall of 2008, Grostic was "in his element," Meldrum says.
Grostic started keeping a journal while in Panama chronicling insights and critiques of his work. He was a dedicated letter writer and sender of e-mails to friends, family and colleagues.
"People kept telling me they should be put in a book, and, yes, I did think I had something to say," he says. "So many people have incorrect assumptions about the Peace Corps."
His correspondence tackled the tough subjects of religion, politics -- and a young man's self-searching. It noted, almost as an aside, that there were two suicide bombings the first week he was in Kabul.
When he was in Pakistan, he was called out of the field, where his job was the rebuilding of 14 schools ruined by an earthquake, when his superiors were worried about security.
Former Pakistan prime minister Benazier Bhutto was assassinated while Grostic was in Pakistan. He also was there during the deadly Red Mosque incident, when dozens of radical Muslims and several military commandos were killed.
In August, Grostic self-published a collection of his writings he calls "Finding Purple: A Walk Down The Path of Sustainable Development." The book title was inspired from the random sighting in the mountains of Afghanistan of a poor girl, dressed in purple, traditionally the color of majesty. The book, he writes, is "about finding the majestic purple within each of us and within our neighbors."
Born in Grand Rapids, Grostic grew up in Muskegon, where his father, the late John Grostic, was pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church. He is also the son of Eileen Grostic of Spring Lake. The middle of three sons, Ben Grostic earned a name for himself at Muskegon High School in the jazz and marching bands, as well as on the competitive tennis courts.
He started his college career at Wittenberg College, a small liberal arts college in Springfield, Ohio. Although his early academic interests were in physics and art, he decided in his sophomore year he wanted to be an architect. He transferred to the University of Michigan's architecture program in his junior year -- where, he likes to tell people, the most important thing he learned is that he didn't want to be an architect.
He'd grown up with the stories of his father's service in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in Africa -- and he was inspired. The summer before his senior year at U-M, Ben Grostic volunteered for Habitat for Humanity for three months in Costa Rica.
It was that service that led him on his path into the nonprofit world, overseas and at home.
Early on, he says, he decided he "wanted to be worthy of imitation" whether he was digging ditches, supervising work crews or teaching English after hours.
"I am a Christian, but I wouldn't say I'm `religious,'" he says. "I believe faith is what you do day to day. It's how you live day to day ... and who you serve."
"Finding Purple: A Walk Down the Path of Sustainability" is available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. It costs $13.95 and was published by OutskirtsPress.com --"This is how, this is where, the world can get better" By Susan Harrison Wolffis, Muskegon Chronicle, September 30, 2009, - Grand Rapids Press, October 6, 2009