When 87-year-old Orin Scandrett was given the opportunity to go to a remote village in Cambodia to build houses for the poor, he mulled it over with family and a physician.
The trip would involve a grueling plane ride, unsanitary conditions, heat well into the 90s, high humidity, monsoon rains and long days of work hauling and stacking bricks. His son advised him not to go. So did a doctor. So Scandrett, the founding director of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, did the only thing that seemed to make sense.
He found another doctor.
Scandrett, now a pastor at Cedarcrest Free Methodist Church who works with people in crisis, had never been abroad.
“I was excited, but scared too, terribly scared,” he said. “My son, Michael, said ‘You can’t go, you’ll never survive.’ And I always had the idea I might never survive.”
But Susan Haigh, current president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity, said he was welcome on the trip.
Despite surviving a cancer scare, Scandrett has been a dutiful runner, competing in more than three dozen marathons over the years. This year, “I had the healthiest and happiest year of my life. The Cambodia trip was putting a capper on it. This was a call from God for me. My life was being lived out for the group of Cambodian friends.”
Before the trip, “Orin said, ‘I don’t want to take the spot of someone who is younger and more productive,’ ” said Haigh. “I said, ‘Yeah, it’s going to be hot and it’s going to be a long trip, but if you are up for it, we’d love to have you.’
“The time spent with Orin was truly an inspiration,” she added. “I thought, ‘This is the kind of 87-year-old I want to be.’ He has such energy and excitement about life.”
Haigh said Habitat “would be nowhere” without Scandrett. The first home the agency built, in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood in the 1980s, was recently rehabbed when that occupant moved into an assisted care facility. It’s now going to another person under the agency’s watch.
“It’s just an amazing trajectory,” said Haigh. “He’s someone who in his heart and soul is an entrepreneur. He is just a remarkable person who is moved to help people in poverty.”
Tim Campbell, a former Minnesotan and another volunteer, worked on Scandrett’s team.
“He’s my hero,” said Campbell. “The guy was an infinite source of positive energy and enthusiasm. We had to pull him off the site through torrential rains. He was like a wet dog. He was there for the experience. He’s so attuned to the moment and loved every part of it.”
That wouldn’t surprise many people. Scandrett received the 2012 Spirit of Aging Award from Aging Services of Minnesota (now LeadingAge Minnesota) for his active lifestyle and positive example in the community.
“Orin lives his life like he is a man on a mission, and that mission is living life to the fullest,” Chris Orr, housing director at Walker Place in Minneapolis, said during the ceremony honoring Scandrett. “Through his words, actions and even his running, he is not only steadfast in purpose but steadfast in life.”
Scandrett said he was simply honored to be included in the Cambodia trip. “They included me, they accepted me and they believed in me,” he said. “There is no question it was the greatest experience of my life.”
That’s saying something for a man who has worked for decades with the poor and people with mental illness and who has authored three books.
“The most powerful part was the team I worked with,” said Scandrett. “No one pressured me, no one got irritated. Every brick laid was an act of love. I’ve never worked with such fellowship, with such a bond.”
Scandrett was part of a three-person team and part of a 26-member contingent from Minnesota.
“Some were CEOs, and they were down in the muck and mud,” Scandrett said. “There were young women swinging pick axes and hauling bricks. I literally couldn’t sleep at night because of the emotion of the day. Everybody was in a state of joy. It was the greatest pleasure of my life.”
The group worked alongside the family of the would-be homeowner, a woman who picked garbage for $1 a day. The mother of three children had previously lived in a crawl space under a house.
When someone mentioned that a wall on her house was the best among the many going up, “she runs over to the wall and embraces it and says, ‘My nice wall. My nice wall,’ ” Scandrett said.
The Habitat volunteers and Cambodian families worked and ate together every day. When the trip was finished and the house nearly completed, the family moved in. “She’d never had a flush toilet in her life,” said Scandrett. “She was just overwhelmed; it was a life change.”
Teammates said Scandrett worked diligently every day, rain or shine. He ate every meal, including food with indeterminate origins. He even got up in front of the 250 volunteers from around the world to lead the American contingent in a round of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“He truly was a lift, not just to our team but to everyone who met him,” said Campbell.
Scandrett shrugs off the compliments.
“They were the firefighters,” he said. “I just carried the hose.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin