OREGONIAN (January 22, 2011) – It’s hot up on the second floor of this unfinished house more than 7,000 miles away from Oregon. And the piece of triboard material the four of us are carrying wobbles partially because some of us — like me — aren’t experienced with tools or moving big, heavy things on precarious structures.
As we find a resting place for this deceptively hefty piece of construction slab made out of timber cores, a spasm of incompetence intrudes upon the feel-good moment: one of my fingers gets caught underneath. A stream of blood oozes out of it, only an hour into this, our first day working together.
What are 10 other American volunteers and I doing here in the South Island of New Zealand — the small town of Nelson, to be exact? Simply, we’re helping build a house under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity International. As for why each of us wants to help build that house, that’s a more complicated matter.
On one level, each of us has agreed to spend more than two weeks laboring under a brilliant New Zealand sun at the cost of at least $3,500 per person to change the world in a small way. In this case, helping a New Zealand family of six achieve the dream of home ownership.
On another level, hammering nails and installing insulation and house siding halfway around the world has allowed each of us to learn something about ourselves in a way that only physical distance can inspire. All the while, we’ve embraced the enduring joys that travel often allows — meeting new people, absorbing the culture of a faraway place, and generally getting away from it all.
A mix of muscle power
But first, a little bit about the organization that caught our collective eye, Habitat for Humanity International, the Georgia-based nonprofit founded in 1976.
The home ownership mission of Habitat and its affiliate organizations across the world is well-known, partly because of the public advocacy of its biggest fan, former President Jimmy Carter. Affiliates are independent, tax-exempt nonprofits, but all of them also operate under the umbrella of Habitat for Humanity International, which establishes guidelines for its housing programs and policies.
Habitat relies on a mix of muscle power — volunteers and local professional builders — to construct its homes. Many of the volunteers come from the local community. But many others are like us, the 11 Americans, including a Habitat-trained and appointed team leader, who traveled to New Zealand through the nonprofit’s Global Village program, better known as its volunteer vacation program.
Construction experience isn’t required of volunteers, who must first apply online and then be interviewed by phone. Only desire and enthusiasm are essential.
Those two qualities never wavered from the moment the 11 of us — five men and six women from Vermont, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Oregon, California and Washington, D.C. — arrived in New Zealand a few days after Thanksgiving.
On paper, our mission sounded demanding. In 10 days, help build the second floor of a house, as well as its roof, then paint the entire exterior. If the hours seemed strenuous, they were modestly so. We walked a half-mile to the construction site by 8 a.m. and finished work by 5:30 p.m. Not bad.
All of this labor occurred under the baking New Zealand summer sun, no less, where temperatures in the upper 70s felt much stronger because of the thin ozone layer hovering above most of the country.
But everything proceeded without worry or strain, and almost too quickly. That’s largely because of the good will and generosity of our hosts, the local Habitat affiliate led by Julian Shields. Their scrumptious scones during twice-daily tea, coupled with hearty lunches, seemed extravagant indulgences, hardly in line with the gritty experience some of us expected. Our hosts spoiled us.
But spoiling us was perhaps unavoidable in some ways.
Much of the construction work required technical skill, which most of us didn’t have. For most of us, this was our first Habitat trip. And given the time frame to complete the house, the paid professional builders — led by a crew of rascally funny dudes, including Neville Greaney, Paul Mason and Nick Whitley — did most of the heavy sawing, hitting and nailing. “Team America,” as we were wryly anointed, filled in the cracks, providing the raw muscle and enthusiasm.
Apparently, getting spoiled is a rare occurrence during a Global Village trip, because many of them take place in Third World countries under challenging conditions. New Zealand is far from underdeveloped, of course.
Still, the need for help is compelling in the small town of Nelson — population: roughly 45,000. The economy is limited, the median income is around $700 a week and the average cost for a house is $330,000. That means a family with a median income could expect to spend about 60 percent of it on housing, according to Habitat sources.
The prospective owners of the house we helped build were not impoverished by Third World standards. But they were young and struggling, a single-income family: Paul and Sally Jeffries and their four children.
The Jeffrieses worked side by side with us, and were thus fulfilling a major Habitat rule that requires prospective homeowners to invest hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” in their homes, as well as those of others. Their gentle, cheerful daily presence was a major reason the trip yielded so much pleasure and gratification. We worked with the very people benefiting from this collective labor.
For a few weeks, then, life was about someone else and their needs, not ours. And for many of us, that provided a stark contrast to our lives in the United States.
Not once did the 11 of us fight or bicker about what or how something needed to be done. No one thought or acted above the group or others. We achieved that rare Zen clarity: We were of the same mind and intention. And we made a small difference in the lives of others, as well as making possible lifelong friends, in some cases.
It’s worth mentioning that none of the volunteers was particularly wealthy. All could have easily saved or spent their money in more personally useful ways. But each was drawn to this place and time, to helping someone in need.
There was Jeff Zenz of Ypsilanti, Mich., a 22-year-old graphic design student who paid for the trip using part of a small inheritance intended for college. There was Evan Gallagher of Jericho, Vt., a brainy 26-year-old Bowdoin College alumnus and rugby and culinary aficionado applying to graduate school in public policy. And Shannon Walters of Thornville, Ohio, a 36-year-old administrator at State Farm Insurance who possessed the most building experience of us all, having worked on several previous Habitat projects in the Midwest.
Then there was Clay Henderson of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., a 55-year-old environmental lawyer, amateur birdwatcher and photographer with a Hemingway-esque gusto for life. The New Zealand trip was Henderson’s fourth global project of 2010 alone.
The cynic could argue that being thousands of miles away in a small New Zealand town cast everyone and everything in a dewy golden hue. How could life be anything but awesome hanging out with hearty, quick-witted New Zealanders in some of the most gorgeous natural landscape in the world?
A simple life
Indeed, Nelson has a village feel, a cultural mindset closer to Eisenhower America than what most of us experience in modern-day cities. The people of Nelson have been exposed to pop culture but by and large haven’t absorbed it. So the following sentiment is intended without presumption or patronage: Life is simple and unadorned there in ways that could unburden the neurotic, busybody and constantly aspiring American way of life that too frequently shuns reflection.
All of this is to say that traveling more than 7,000 miles to build part of a modest two-story house was an act of liberation. It freed the qualities of humility and perspective that had been buried for too long by myopic rhythms of ambition, and the desire to keep up with everyone else. “Everybody has their own story,” says Henderson about the one familiar trait he’s noticed on four trips he’s taken over the last year. “It’s not uncommon to meet people here in the middle of big change or major life experiences: divorce, a death in the family. You get a long way from home and throw yourself into a different kind of work. It clears the head. There’s a term for this: It’s called a transformative experience.”
He’s right. Helping people is a high, and it can be an out-of-body experience. You get out of your skin and mind: You see yourself without illusion, more lightly, even.
For me, I more clearly understand life doesn’t always go the way you want it to go. Maybe you’re not the man you expected to be at this point in life. Maybe you’ve hoped and wanted things that ultimately didn’t matter, missing out on the things that truly did. Maybe the loss of someone lovely and once close to the heart still hurts, still lingers.
These magical, transporting few weeks closed those wounds, if only for a little while.
I hope to hold on to that magic feeling and look forward to seeing my new friends soon, far away in another part of the world.
— D.K. Row
What: Habitat offers volunteer vacations in parts of the United States and internationally.
Cost: Depends on the length of visit and whether the trip is domestic or international. But if abroad, expect to pay more than $3,000, including fees and airfare.
What the fees cover: Fees pay for food and housing for the duration of the trip. The fee does not cover airfare.
Website: habitat.org has more information about its many volunteer programs, including U.S.-based programs and its Global Village Program.
Go local, too: You can also volunteer a day at a time right here in Oregon through a local affiliate. It might be a good way to figure out whether an extended trip abroad is something you’d want to do. For information, go to nwvhabitat.org.