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Building Houses, Building Lives

The sun beat down from overhead with such intensity I was breaking out in a sweat while 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 progress at the construction site. It was grinding work between digging, mixing concrete, laying blocks, and bending rebar, all of which I had little to no practical experience in.

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I’ll admit that building houses was not in my job description. As I sat there with my back against a tree I poured a half bottle of cool water over my head. A smile crossed my face, not because I felt more refreshed, but because I was truly happy. I welcomed a gentle breeze that 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 new language and experiencing a different 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 their lives were unfolding. I needed a change. I wanted to become actively involved in something positive that would provide me with a sense of purpose. Does that even exist, and if so where do I sign up? Perhaps it’s easier said than done. However, 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 and making adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action. Habitat just started a new International Volunteer Program (IVP) for long term volunteers and I was the very first to go through the program. My official title was the Volunteer Coordinator for Latin America & the Caribbean. I felt this was a tremendous opportunity since 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. It was 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. I worked with a task force for the continuous improvement of the IVP program. I even administered an on-site volunteer training program in El Salvador. Yet the greatest part about my job was getting to work alongside other volunteers, people who were there not because they had to be but were there simply because they wanted to be.

As far as the volunteers were concerned my role was to coordinate housing and arrival logistics, administer orientations, and support them throughout their stay. There was such a charisma amongst the volunteers I would often take it a step further and plan weekend excursions and after work outings. We ended up not just changing 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, but more importantly it gave me a genuine sense of fulfillment in being able to work hard at work worth doing.

As often as I could I would break away from the office and take volunteers on build trips to Habitat construction sights throughout Costa Rica. It was heartwarming to see firsthand the culmination of your work. Out at the sight we would work alongside the benefiting Habitat family who was always very receptive, helpful, and appreciative of our help. The scene was a fantastic amalgamation of cultures, economic backgrounds, and beliefs. Yet the common bond that tied us together was the simple notion of building a home. Just 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 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 cliché as it may sound, it was true. We were not just building homes, we were building lives.

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