Joe Collins stares out the window of his hospital room and thinks about good-byes. “I don’t like good-byes,’’ he says. “Good-byes are tough. This last one was very tough.’’
The “last one” was his most recent good-bye to Guatemala. To the hundreds, maybe thousands, thousands of men and women and children this unlikely humanitarian from Morristown has helped for more than a decade.
But a few moments after talking about good-byes, this former U.S. Marine and saloon-keeper allows himself to wonder whether he might make it back to the rain-forest villages where he has arranged to build more than 600 homes and a school and established a medical clinic for the indigenous Mayans, the poorest people in the strife-torn nation. “I’d like to see it again,” he says, his eyes still on the window.
I am sitting next to his bed in the oncology wing of Morristown Medical Center. I see how thin and pale he is. I hear the pain is in his voice. The colon cancer that began almost a decade ago has returned with ferocity and it has spread. I say, “Hey, Joe, I promise that if you go back there again, this time I’m coming with you.’’
Dumb, I know. But I want him to live. Not just because I’ve known and liked him for almost 20 years, but because of the work he does. He is a necessary man.
“I know what the doctors are telling me, but, maybe, you know, something will happen, the chemotherapy will work, at least for a little while, and I’ll be able to go back,” Joe says. “But I’m only going to go back if I’m in recovery mode. I don’t want to say good-bye again if I’m very sick.’’
He wasn’t a necessary man when I met him. Just interesting. A good story. A private detective who specialized in finding the birth parents of adopted children. After I wrote a piece about an adoptive mother who was looking for her daughter’s twin, he called me and said flatly, “I found the twin.’’
He was good at what he did. He helped reunite 3,000 families. He took up the business in 1988 after the he left the bar he ran with his brother. The Collins Pub is still on Speedwell Avenue in Morristown. Running the bar was a good time, he says, but it led to his alcoholism. It ruined two marriages.
In 1999, he visited his son Darron who was conducting anthropological research in Guatemala for a doctoral degree he later earned from Tulane. Joe was shocked by the poverty he saw. He says he had to do something.
After volunteering with an organization that built homes in Guatemala, he struck out on his own, creating the From Houses to Homes Guatemala. It has attracted nearly 2,000 volunteers from throughout the world who pay $500 for the privilege of flying on their dime to the Central American country to help build new homes for the native families.
Just before his latest hospitalization, Collins—who was awarded Guatemala’s most prestigious human rights honor—returned from the opening of his school that already has enrolled 124 students. Then he went to Maine where his son is now president of the College of the Atlantic. He attended the commencement and met the speaker– Paul Farmer, the physician and activist internationally known for his work trying to provide health care in Haiti.
Farmer gave Joe an autographed copy of his newest book, “To Repair the World.” In his inscription to Joe, Farmer expressed his “admiration for your wonderful work in Guatemala.’’ Joe keeps it on his hospital bed and shows it to visitors.
Joe Collins remains co-executive director of From Houses to Homes Guatemala with Judy Baker of Mt. Tabor, an old friend who adopted two Guatemalan children. He has worked hard to turn his passion into an institution, complete with a board of directors to ensure the work goes on without him.
But he’s not ready to say good-bye. Collins says his doctors offered what he called a “last-ditch” chemotherapy that, while not curing him, may arrest the spread. Let him live a little longer.
“So, maybe I can go back to work for a little while. Maybe go back to Guatemala. I’ll do it, I’ll take the chemo, so I can say I did everything I could to stay alive.’’
For more information, see http://www.fromhousestohomes.org/. Also see http://blog.nj.com/njv_bob_braun/2012/09/braun_from_hospital_bed_morris.html and http://blog.nj.com/njv_bob_braun/2007/12/his_houses_rebuild_lives_in_gu.html.