Category Archives: Volunteering

Nhamatanda, Mozambique (January 2020)

I’m excited to have been a part of a team of volunteers with All Hands and Hearts as we constructed two primary schools in rural communities in the Nhamatanda District of Mozambique in January 2020.

More information on this project can be found on the All Hands and Hearts website here. Portions of that project description are copied below.

Disaster Profile

On March 15, 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai slammed into central Mozambique as a Category 3 storm. After lingering in the Mozambique channel for six days, Idai made landfall near Beira, Mozambique, and tracked inland towards Malawi and Zimbabwe. The storm brought severe wind and flooding to these regions, with extensive damage caused to homes, schools, health facilities and infrastructure. Nearly three million people have been affected by the storm.

While media attention moved away from the devastated communities, survivors still face dire circumstances. This post-disaster region is a highly complex and challenging environment for both survivors and aid workers. The Mozambique government referred to this event as a “humanitarian disaster of great proportion” and requested international support for affected communities.

Our Work

We have identified two primary schools in rural communities in the Nhamatanda District, which have yet to receive aid after the cyclone and will commence work in November.

Nhamatanda is a town in the Sofala Province of Mozambique. It lies along the Beira Corridor between Harare in Zimbabwe and Beira, Mozambique’s second-largest city. This area suffered extensive damage from Cyclone Idai in March 2019, with numerous schools impacted by severe flooding and wind. Each of the primary schools identified educates between 400-600 students. The schools teach grades 1-7, split between morning and afternoon class sessions and with classrooms being devastated during the cyclone, our teams will work to construct four or five classrooms and an office at each school. 

In addition to reconstructing classrooms, the rural communities within which the schools are located are challenged by the absence of infrastructure –– this includes piped water and electricity. Our volunteers will help to construct lavatories for the students as part of our WaSH work. Our project team will consist of experienced construction and engineering staff to ensure the schools are built to cyclone resilient standards and students will be able to return to safe learning environments.

I Speak With My Eyes (2020 Quarantine Edition)

Last week I had to attend 2 essential appointments.  I did so with all of the appropriate precautions, including my latest fashion accessory…

Both appointments were with people who I see regularly but not very often.  As I approached, a strange thought occurred to me – would they recognize me like this?  What features do you pick up on to “recognize” someone?  Do you need to see someone’s face or can you just hear their voice, note their clothes, see their mannerisms and the way they enter the room?   And this reminded me of a story…..

I’ve had the opportunity to travel and volunteer twice in the country of Jordan.  Before my first trip, I had never visited any country in the Middle East and, like many people, I had no idea what to expect.  I think there are a lot of preconceived notions, mostly misconceptions and stereotypes, about the people and culture of this region.  I went with an open mind because really – isn’t this one reason why travel is so important?  To educate, to share, to experience for yourself and form your own opinions…  I was excited to take it all in!

Jordanians are extremely welcoming and I was lucky to have excellent company on this trip.  One of the first things I noticed and was curious to learn more about (in addition to the delicious food!) was the style of dress for the women.  In this country, about 95% of people are Muslim and 5% are Christian.  People are very accommodating of others traditions and I saw people wearing everything from cute tops and skinny jeans to “regular” outfits topped off with hijabs to full burkhas.  I’m definitely no expert on the different types of head coverings, but here’s some info if you are interested in learning more.

When our team arrived at our Habitat for Humanity Global Village location, we met with the family of Mr. and Mrs. S who were excited to soon have a home of their own!

We worked side by side, day by day, and not once did Mrs. S hesitate to put on gloves and get dirty with the rest of us.  She became one of my two wall-building partners that week. 🙂

Clearly, the fact that women here dress conservatively does not mean that they are limited!  In fact, I also had a chance to meet a group of women who have started their own community-based organization (CBO) – by women, for women.  To my knowledge, they now work with over 50 women in their community.  Their work focuses on seeking solutions to life’s daily challenges, identifying opportunities for all and generally providing a network of support for women.  The concept of women’s economic empowerment through CBOs in Jordan is highly promoted by the government – here’s an example of a recent event where organizations like this one were recognized publicly.

During the course of the trip, I also had an opportunity to become friends and have many conversations with Mrs. M, whose husband plays an important role in the CBO we were working with on that build.  She lives next door to the guesthouse where we stayed and has a good command of English, enabling us to have many in depth discussions.  I learned more about her daily life and quickly realized that despite our differences, she was describing a life which really was not that different from my own.  Mrs M normally wears a niqab and at one point when we were in her home, she took it off to show me her face and let me try it out. Um….it’s pretty hot under there, whew!

Once we became comfortable with each other, our conversations became more personal. When I posed question “why do you dress this way”, she immediately smiled and said, in an astonished tone, “why wouldn’t I??”.  She shared with me that she has covered her head since she was 15.  Because SHE wants to, it is 100% her choice.  She is proud of the way she lives her life and by choosing to cover herself, she is able to define how she interacts with others.  Her exact words? 

“I am golden.  I choose who is allowed to see me and who is not. It is my decision.  It is my special gift and power.” 

Wow, perfect.  It led to a conversation about self-expression and the recognition that we were truly seeing each other – despite her external coverings and my own less visible barriers.  To her, it was so clear.  You don’t need to express yourself through materialistic or ostentatious displays. Just be true yourself.  Her second lesson to me?  “You know me because I speak with my eyes.”

This conversation took place more than 2 years ago, but it still rings true.  For everyone.  If you want to honestly know someone, you only need to look into their eyes to see their heart.  Tell me you can’t see Mrs. S’s joy!

As tourists, it was totally fine to not cover our heads during our time in Jordan – but eventually, you realize that you “stick out less” if you give it a try.  So, on the last day of the trip, inspired by a parting gift given to me by Mrs. M, I did just that at dinner.  And the hotel staff, who had seen me in my usual pony-tailed state for days prior to the conclusion of our trip, all stopped and stared when I got out of the elevator.  Oh no!  I was immediately self conscious – did I offend them all?  Is this the worst idea ever??  I started to apologize only to discover quite the opposite.  They broke out in huge grins and sheepishly replied “beautiful…”. 

Let that sink in for a bit.  Hair free, looking my “normal” – no comment or even a sideways glance.  Wrap it all up – and every head turned.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  I am golden.  I choose who gets to see me. 

We are all going to become experts at speaking with our eyes in the post-COVID new normal. I’m glad I got off to a good start with a great teacher.

To learn more about the work of Habitat for Humanity in Jordan, please click here. Global Village teams have been suspended in 2020 but families are still in need. If you are able, you can make a financial donation in support of this work using this link (scroll down to designate your donation to Jordan). Your kindness and generosity are most appreciated!

All Hands and Hearts in Mozambique (2020 Quarantine Edition)

In January 2020, you know – “the time before” – I participated in a project building two primary schools in Mozambique with All Hands and Hearts.  It already seems so long ago!  Why Mozambique, you ask?  Well….let me tell you the story.

On March 15, 2019, Tropical Cyclone Idai slammed into central Mozambique as a Category 3 storm. After lingering in the Mozambique channel for six days, Idai made landfall near Beira, Mozambique, and tracked inland towards Malawi and Zimbabwe. The storm brought severe wind and flooding and caused extensive damage to homes, schools, health facilities, and infrastructure, impacting nearly 3 million people.

As with most natural disasters, the media spotlight faded relatively quickly.  Attention shifted to other current events and compassion fatigue set in, reducing overall support for recovery of these communities (here’s an interesting article that talks about this phenomenon).  However, survivors were still living in dire circumstances.  All Hands and Hearts decided to answer the call. 

Two primary schools in rural communities in the Nhamatanda District of Sofala Province, Mozambique which had not yet received governmental aid were identified as potential high-impact projects.  Each school served 400-600 students in grades 1-7 before the storm.  Both were completely destroyed.  A plan was formed whereby volunteers from around the world would work with local masons at each school site to construct 4 cyclone-resilient classrooms, a teachers office, and a permanent, hygienic lavatory facility.

I was excited to arrive in Mozambique (my first time!) and start working on this project.  Everything was new and, well, I loved it!  It’s impossible to capture the spirit in words but trust me – it was an experience I will never forget.  I worked for a few days building roof-trusses at our pre-fabrication site.

Then I headed out to the Julius Neyere Primary School.  Part of the joy of this site was the ~45 minute commute each day through the countryside.  We witnessed many scenes of daily life and got the warmest welcomes!

Before one of our workdays, it had rained all night.  As we drove to work, we passed by many flooded houses – just from a few hours of “regular” rain.  This gave us a somber hint at what things may have been like in this area during a cyclone.

Work over the time I was on project was to (literally) raise the roof.  The first trusses were set but it was time to install those hip and incline trusses that we had been constructing in pre-fabrication.

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We worked through unbearable heat and then several days of rain, but we got it done!

And then, on the day before I had to leave, the metal sheeting started going up, woohoo!

In addition to the primary classroom buildings, we also spent some time constructing a temporary learning center for the students to use until the completed buildings were ready.  While I was on the project, students were on their winter break but they were due back in just a few days!  Here’s how we set them up for continuous learning.

An amazing part of this project was how closely it was tied to the community.  This isn’t just an opportunity for outsiders to come in and feel good about themselves.  Local masons were hired and played a major role in the success of this build.  As guests in their community, we as volunteers provided labor, technical advice, and funding but we always deferred to the needs of the community.  We spent a lot of time getting to know the people on our worksite and, in turn, they were eager to know us and learn – English lessons happened often!

I enjoyed getting to know these local workers – they were all fun, friendly, hard-working, open and eager.

One of the senior masons, Albano, shared with us his story.

Albano lives close to the Julius Neyere Primary School with his wife, 3 children and 1 granddaughter.  He also has 3 married daughters who live with their families nearby.  On the night of the storm, he was visiting his extended family about an hour away from his home.  The storm prevented him from returning home that night and when he was finally able to venture outside around 4am, Albano discovered that many of the surrounding homes were destroyed.

He immediately started for home to reunite with his family and ensure they were safe.  The mini bus he boarded only made it about 15 minutes before severe flooding halted their journey.  Albano began walking the 15 kilometers to Nhamatanda, wading through water which was a times nearly 1.5 meters high.  In Nhamatanda, he was able to catch a motor taxi to Metuchira.  When he arrived, he found that the flooding was less severe than the area where he had come from, but nearly everything in town was destroyed, including his house.  Strong winds had ripped away the roofs of many homes.  And since most homes are constructed from sticks, bamboo and mud, they had simply washed away in the heavy rains.  Everything in the town was destroyed, including his own house. 

Albano found his family sheltering at the local community leader’s home. Not wanting to further impose, he went out and gathered whatever he could find – sticks, scattered metal, and nails – in order to build a temporary structure for his family. He dug holes for the sticks, and nailed on metal roofing sheets as walls and a roof. His family is living here until he is able to rebuild his permanent home.

For the three days after the storm food was very scarce, but Albano had two bags of corn from his family visit. After 3 days, the distribution of food by NGOs began in the village, including a bag of rice every 15 days. As time went on people began to work to regain normalcy, cleaning up debris, tending the fields, and rebuilding homes.

Albano saves the money he earns as a mason in order to buy bricks and roofing sheets with a goal of building a new house. He not only works tirelessly each day, but always has a smile. He loves meeting people from all over the world and sharing stories so that they can learn about each other.  He is proud to use the skills he has learned from his time building the Julius school, in order to build his own home and help others to do the same. ❤️

Unfortunately, with just a few weeks left to go before these schools were scheduled for completion, it became necessary to recall all volunteers and suspend the collaboration due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  While disappointing, safety always is paramount and I’m still proud to have contributed and made a difference in this community.  The local masons, true to form, have been working hard and today the schools are nearly complete.  It’s just a matter of time before 600 students per day get the chance to continue their quest for knowledge in these buildings.

There is still a great need in the communities in Sofala province.  If you are able, please consider a donation to support ongoing work in this area using this link.  Every dollar makes a difference. 

* This post contains information and photos provided by multiple staff members of All Hands and Hearts Volunteers – Smart Response.  Their support and willingness to share is much appreciated!

Another “First”

When I began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in 2012, it was a fun way to help others, travel, meet new people and get away from the stresses of work. I never could have imagined just how it would change my life! Since that first trip to Eldama Ravine, Kenya SO many volunteering “firsts” have happened for me. Some were significant (like the first time I witnessed and appreciated the real, true, tangible impact of safe, durable shelter on a families life*), some I prefer to forget (the first time I shared an outhouse with 300+ cockroaches!) and some were just plain unexpected (the first time I was offered a mouse kabob). 🙂

It’s now time for another “first” – next week is the first time I’ll be volunteering with a team comprised solely of people to whom I’m related! While I call them all “my cousins”, technically only one of them falls under that title…but it’s close enough to describe how special they all are to me. We are setting off for Sonsonate, El Salvador where we’ll be working as Global Village volunteers for one week with Habitat for Humanity El Salvador.

During the week, we’ll be assisting a family of 3 to build their own home. Carlos has been the owner of a bakery for 4 years. His wife Wendy is in charge of the baking, and Carlos goes out in the area around the community where they live to sell it each day. They are currently renting a house where they live with their 6 year old son Jonathan. We’re going to meet them in a few days and I can’t wait! Here is their photo with their parents.

I’m so grateful for all of the “firsts” that I’ve had the opportunity to experience as a result of volunteering. Thank you for your support and for sharing the joy with me!

* Follow this link to learn about how safe shelter changes lives.

Irbid, Jordan (May 2018)

Due to economic necessity and tradition, extended families in this country tend to live together, resulting in 12 to 15 family members oftentimes sharing a small two-room house. Overcrowded living conditions and a lack of privacy endanger the health and well-being of families. Additionally, women struggle to cook in makeshift kitchens with dirt floors, which results in improperly stored food that can attract pests and rodents. Habitat for Humanity Jordan works with the local community to provide housing solutions to these families in need of healthy, affordable homes.

With 80 percent of the population currently living in cities — 63 percent in Amman, Zarqa and Irbid alone — Jordan is also faced with an urban housing crisis. Continued migration into the cities, combined with an influx of refugees from neighboring countries and the high level of urban poverty, have left many families without adequate shelter. These families are struggling with unsanitary conditions and social alienation. Inadequate housing fosters a sense of helplessness and marginalization among the poor, most of whom believe they are powerless to improve their living conditions.

Habitat for Humanity Jordan operates in 11 communities, bringing opportunities for families to lead safe, healthy and productive lives. A typical Habitat house in Jordan averages 55 square meters and is made of concrete blocks. The houses represent opportunities to build relationships across cultures, religions and classes, which consequently builds peace in the country.

Global Village is Habitat for Humanity’s international volunteer program. Teams travel to over 40 countries to work alongside communities, build housing solutions, and experience local culture. Our goal is to change the lives of the people we serve, as well as the lives of the volunteers.  To join a team or learn more, visit www.habitat.org/gv.

About Habitat for Humanity International

Driven by the vision that everyone needs a decent place to live, Habitat for Humanity began in 1976 as a grassroots effort on a community farm in southern Georgia. The housing organization has since grown to become a leading global nonprofit working in more than 1,300 communities throughout the U.S. and in more than 70 countries. Families and individuals in need of a hand up partner with Habitat for Humanity to build or improve a place they can call home. Habitat homeowners help build their own homes alongside volunteers and pay an affordable mortgage. Through financial support, volunteering or adding a voice to support affordable housing, everyone can help families achieve the strength, stability and self-reliance they need to build better lives for themselves. Through shelter, we empower. To learn more, visit habitat.org.