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Building Houses, Building Lives

Building Houses, Building Lives
Building Houses, Building Lives
The sun beat down from overhead with such intensity, I was breaking out in a sweat sitting in the shade. I didn’t mind the heat so much, I was just glad to be outside. However, it did impede the speed of our work at the construction sight – grinding work between digging, mixing concrete, laying blocks and bending rebar – all of which I personally had little to no practical experience in. I’ll admit, building houses was not in my job description. You didn’t have to be an expert, though, just an able body. As I sat there with my back against a tree, I poured a half bottle of cool water over my head. A smile surfaced, not because I felt more refreshed, but because I was truly happy. Much welcome, a gentle breeze suddenly swept across the landscape and took my thoughts with it. My mind began to wonder. How did I get here?

For several years I had the dream of living abroad, learning a different language and culture. Wasn’t there something more to life than routine and monotony? At times I would often wonder if most people were really waking up in the morning inspired by the work they were doing and how they were living their lives. I needed to make a change. I wanted to become actively involved in something positive that would provide a sense of purpose. Does that even exist, and if so, where do I sign up? Perhaps it’s easier said than done. I finally took the initiative and began to realize this dream when I traveled to Costa Rica on a whim and found myself volunteering with Habitat for Humanity International. Can one person really change the world? I wanted to find out.

Habitat for Humanity International is a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian organization dedicated to eliminating substandard housing and homelessness worldwide by making adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat started a new International Volunteer Program (IVP) for long term volunteers, and I was the first to go through the program. My official title was that of Volunteer Coordinator for Latin America and the Carribean. I felt this to be a tremendous opportunity as the organization was built and existed on the support of volunteers. Starting out I was a bit on edge but in due time, I found my groove within the Habitat framework.

Unbelievable – I was actually enjoying office work. I took part in the development of materials such as a volunteer manual, interview guides, and evaluation forms; worked with a task force for the continuous improvement of the IVP program. I even did an on-site volunteer training in El Salvador. But the greatest part about my job was getting to work alongside other volunteers. People were there not because they had to be or were paid to be, but simply because they wanted to. My role was to coordinate housing and arrival logistics, administer orientations and provide support.

There was such charisma amongst the volunteers that I would often take it a step further and plan weekend excursions, after work outings – you name it. We ended up not just helping to change the lives of others, but changing the lives of each other. Working with Habitat gave me the confidence to feel I could accomplish any task. More importantly, it gave me a genuine sense of fulfillment in being able to work hard at work worth doing.

As often as possible I would leave the office and take the volunteers on building trips to Habitat construction sites throughout Costa Rica. It was extremely heartwarming to be able to see firsthand what the work you’re doing ultimately culminates in. Out at the site we would get to work alongside the benefitting Habitat family, who was very receptive, helpful and appreciative of us being there.

The scene was a fantastic amalgamation of cultures, economic backgrounds and beliefs. Yet the common bond that tied us together so tightly was the simple notion of building a home. Seeing everyone working, laughing, smiling, and sharing created an atmosphere so rich with emotion, it made me reconsider how I defined wealth. The house was symbolic of much more than just a place of residence. It represented a unity, a coming together, and an inherent understanding of equality that we’ll carry with us for the rest of our lives. As cliche as it may sound, it’s true. We were not only building homes, we were building lives.

Internationally or domestically, conflict resolution or human rights, poverty or the environment – it’s disheartening to think that there are so many ways to get involved and give back to the global community, Dilemmas exist not to create despair but activity. It doesn’t matter where you begin to start making positive contributions, so long as you make the decision to start, which is ultimately the toughest decision.

I chose the movement of eliminating poverty housing. Did I eliminate poverty housing? Not even close. Did I succeed? Absolutely. The serenity of my experience taught me that I alone cannot do away with poor housing, but it led me to the answer I was looking for. Perhaps one person can’t change the world, but the world can certainly change for one person. And it’s this domino effect, that if spread across the globe we can, collectively, achieve the unimaginable and create a world that reflects the warmth of mankind instead of its indifference.