From the Cincinnati Enquirer, by Sean Maurer
also Read about Third Graders in Action
Habitat for Humanity
A 1990 NY Times survey revealed that 60% of American citizens couldn't locate NY City on a map. Given this, it terrifies me to imagine how few can probably find Costa Rica or El Salvador. Despite American's isolation, the world is increasingly becoming more inter-connected.
Not only can Kevin Bacon be connected to Julia Stiles in six easy steps, you can personally get in touch with the leader of North Korea, Kim Dae Jung with only six degrees of separation. Let me know what you need to tell him and I will pass it on to my new friends at Habitat for Humanity, Costa Rica. They can call up the founder of Habitat, Millard Fuller, and he will relay it to his good friend Jimmy Carter. Finally Jimmy can put a word in Kim Jung's ear next time they discuss their recent World Leaders Habitat for Humanity House Build.
The key to this unlikely game of telephone is Millard Fuller. In 1965 Fuller, a 29-year-old mail order millionaire was left by his wife Linda. She was moving to NY because Miilard was too preoccupied with making money.
He followed her there,
they reconciled and returned to Georgia vowing to sell all their possessions,
give the money to the poor and find a new way of living.
When it worked there, the family moved back to Americus, Georgia and founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976 with a simple goal. As Millard puts it, "we want to eliminate poverty housing from the face of the earth."
Though Habitat has now built houses in over 70 countries for over 400,000 people, I chose to volunteer with them right here in our corner of the global neighborhood, Central America. First in Costa Rica, which, as its name "Rich Coast" suggests, is reportedly 4 times richer than its neighboring countries. And secondly in El Salvador, which, on the other hand, with its civil war ending in 1991 and twin earthquakes earlier this year, is certainly the most unstable Central American country, both politically and geologically.
Our Habitat "brigade" as HFH work groups are called, was comprised of high schoolers from all over North Carolina. Work was scheduled to start at 7 AM and end at 6 PM. But since we were on Costa Rican or 'Tico' Time, I had plenty of time to get to know our group at our 7:30 breakfast.
Chickens fought each other or maybe serenaded us from the tin roof as we ate our breakfast together outside. As I enjoyed a fresh banana, I commented on how cheap it was to buy fruit. The long-term volunteers just laughed at me. "You paid for fruit? Why? You just pick it off the trees!"
The rest of the group laughed too. The twenty students had spent months raising money for their trip from churches, family and friends. John Willard, the head organizer is wearing a shirt with blueprints of a house on it. Mike, another adult chaperone pointed out that the text read, "These are my plans for spring break."
Mike is a musician who plays trumpet in the Charlotte Symphony. "It is a two way street we hope the kids will get as much out of it as we give." He made them clean their breakfast plates. "The people here don't waste anything."
As we moved out the chickens fluttered down off the roof to clean up the scraps. When we got to the work site, a cleared field that gently slopes to the dirt road, collected debris was burning near the fence and we were immediately put to work unloading 100 pound bags of concrete mix.
Exhausted after only ten minutes of work I used my writing as an excuse for a break and stopped to talk to Luisa, Habitat's coordinator for the area.
"So tell me about the family we are building this house for," I asked. I was quickly corrected. Luisa explained that HFH doesn't build houses for anyone. The partner families receive a Biblically based (Exodus 22:25) no interest loan and pay it back $36-40 a month for 10 years. Furthermore, not only are the families required to help work on their own houses they must pledge over 400 hours of sweat equity to helping build other houses in their community.
"Habitat doesn't give houses. It builds them with communities, using local materials. They are designed to blend into the existing community." Luisa tells me.
Though the houses vary from country to country, here they are about 8 of my strides by 12 with an indoor bath, 3 bedrooms and a kitchen area. All of it built by manual labor. No power tools of any kind are used, even the cement is mixed by hand in piles on the front lawn.
Which is what I get put to work doing for most of the week. Every day one of the students told me, "Hey put that in your book. A direct quote from Dr. B. 'It is ass busting work tomorrow."
It is ass busting work. I routinely take breaks and pretend to take notes so I can rest. We learn the Spanish word for wheelbarrow, "carretillo" and later learn to count our blisters in Spanish. "One ampolla, two ampolla". I only make it to one. My whole hand is a blister and the dog (who knows how to sit and heel) speaks better Spanish than I do. At least I am doing better than John. The kids claim that John thinks that "if you talk to people in English with a Spanish accent they will understand."
Late in the week we were constructing the cinder block walls and I finally started pulling my own weight.Laying mortar was my favorite. Of course, my dad teaches construction and my last name means 'bricklayer' in German, so it might be in the blood.
That doesn't mean I was good at it though. I told Luisa, "I'm worried. I don't want to mess something up and they end up with 4 bathrooms, no bedrooms, and the leaning tower of Costa Rica."
After about thirty minutes of enjoying myself laying brick, Luisa told me, "You need a dress, take a dress!" I realized I was working slowly but even so I was a bit offended until I realized she was actually saying that I should "Take a rest."
Which I do and talk with the family we have been working alongside. The mom, Marisol, who reminds me a bit of Jennifer Lopez, tells me that they are now living in a small home with her husband Harold's family. In the new house they will have their own rooms and a room for their incredibly cute daughter Kembly. Kembly doesn't talk to me, but instead sings "Kembly, kembly, kembly" to herself and holds up one full hand of fingers to tell me how old she is.
Harold, only helps to build half days since he is both working at the University and taking courses to be a computer engineer. This fulfills HFH's requirement that at least one of the spouses in the partner family must have a job.
Marisol tells me she is thrilled to be getting her own house. The owner of a neighboring site breaks down in tears when the students help her to dig the first trench for her new house's foundation. Another future owner in the community told me, "at first people didn't believe in Habitat, but now they are starting to see houses actually going up."
Random neighbors stop by and pitch in for an hour or two. Largely out of community pride, but possibly also so they can share the peanut butter at lunch.
On the way home on the last day, as we putter past Biblical looking cows, the bus breaks down (which is as Central American as mangos or monkeys), and one of the students, comments on the brand name of the bus, "Yeah it is called Civilian 'cause it needs civilians to push it."
I use the break to ask the students what they think of their experience in Costa Rica. I thought the job might give the kids some appreciation for working with their hands, outside, but it appeared to instead just give them motivation to study harder in school.
They told me their most stafisying moments, "Friendships developing" "Drinking water out of a hose", "That Kembly will beliving in her own house that she helped build."
Later that night Kembly, speaking at the thank you dinner says in her quiet Spanish, "Thank you for working on my little house." And then kisses everyone goodbye.
Butterfly wings in China may or may not be changing the weather in Charlotte, but our work in Costa Rica, so far and yet so close to home is certainly slowly making the world a better place.
As if I need an more proof that we are all part of Habitat's so called, "Global Village" I get it as I am leaving to north to El Salvador. Behind me I hear a distinct NC drawl and turn to see who is talking to me. Instead of being one of the volunteers, it is Kembly. The high school kids have taught her some new English, complete with a thick Southern accent. She smiles cheerfully and tells me, "Ah am a red-neck!"