Saturday, January 3, 2015

Habitat For Humanity

Here are some base points for those of you who may be interested in participating in a global (vs. local) build where building standards can be quite different to the building codes we know.

Habitat offers a "hand up", not a "hand out".  Interest free loans are granted to community groups who then provides low interest loans to home owners.  In the case of the community I worked with, it had become common for homeowners to voluntarily put in an extra payment at the end so that their community group can afford to offer small renovation loans to other homeowners.

A surprised fact I learned -- There isn't a waiting list of families any where in the world to participate in the Habitat program.  The organization is still having to work very hard to become known.  So when a build gets advertised, it means a family has applied and been accepted.

If you've been following the build calender of your country's Habitat website, you'll see that not all builds attract the minimum level of people required.  It then means that the family must wait until another team leader decides to pick their location for a build and advertise it again.  Remember that a build does not go ahead without a team showing up.

The funds donated by team members on a successful build goes back into the Habitat pot, so it can be lent out to another community group and family.  Each build creates another opportunity for another family.

It's not about building a house.  As a newbie, I was for sure excited about that part.  In reality, you pretty much don't get to ever finish a house.  That really isn't the point.  The point is hope.  You being there, as someone from the outside (remember that global travel opportunities are often prohibitive), willing to go there, learn about a new culture, eat together and help fund the eventual completion of it, is something that builds a cultural bridge that extends far beyond the few days of token work. 

The amount of money just one team member pays ($4500 in my case) is often much more than what people in the host country make in a year.  I could definitely sense the curiosity of the local community members as to who we were and why we decided to come.  Instead of introducing ourselves by name, we sat in a circle and were asked to share how old we were and what we did at home.  My group ranged from 28 - 75 years old.

Sure, there will be people who join in because it is an opportunity to see a new place and get some sort of tax write off for the effort.  Having just completed my taxes, I can say that in my case, it didn't make "that much" of a difference, not enough to sway me to do another one for this reason alone.

You'll receive 2 receipts, one for the flight and one for the build cost.  Should you decide to extend your stay a few days with the group in the organized "R & R" portion, that cost isn't tax deductible. 

In my group, we were all established travelers already.  And for me, the short travel add on at the end was both not long enough in duration nor slow enough in pace for my taste.  I knew to expect that going in so it was OK.  I definitely wasn't motivated by this portion as I would prefer to explore an area in my own way.  Next time, I would consider doing the build portion only.  And pay extra to get my own room when possible. 

The build portion of the cost varies just a little.  The biggest difference will be the airfare.  I was told that global builds in Central America are the most popular because of the relatively lower cost of flights.  Should you chose more out of the way spots, your airfare portion can easily top 2K.  As a general observation, the more costly the flight, the more rural the experience.  My teammates told me stories of their living conditions at sites around the world that gave me goosebumps.  

Most builds have team members staying in motels or hotels sharing 2 - 3 in a room with meals catered or at local restaurants.  Should you chose a build site that is very rural, with few facilities, then your accommodations may vary dramatically.  Even though you will be with an organized group, there is no control over animals, insects, when standard of housing is very basic and you find yourself in the middle of nowhere with strict restrictions against going out after dark.  You may also be required to get a number of travel immunizations and medication, which are not tax deductible. 

I wouldn't say I chose a real difficult location to start with compared to the stories I heard from the others.  It was rural, with not much around and we had to sleep on the floor but it felt like camping to me.  The biggest challenge and education were the water restrictions.  We don't think much about water use in Canada.  Sure we are aware, do our best to conserve but bottom line is that it's there, available and cheap.  I have experience living without running water up north and still found it stressful and challenging.

The members of my team are all very giving people.  You can feel it emanating from them.  A number of them have extensive experience volunteering with their church group.  Some have spent significant time at overseas missions.  A number of the couples do this as one of their trips away every other year.  A good third of us were solo travelers.  Half of my team were retired.  It was the first build for 5 of us.  And another interesting fact is that 80% of total global team member make up are women.  In fact the oldest member of my team (75) was a woman and it was her 5th global build in 2014!

***A funny moment:  A lady approached me for walking directions after the build was over, during the R & R and we ended up walking and talking together as we were heading the same way.  When she found out what I had just finished doing with Habitat, she exclaimed "You all sleep on the floor, men and women separated, have to pay to do physical work, don't know anyone...(shudder) That sounds like communism!"  (She is Russian, living in the US).***


  1. Thanks for the summary. I may consider doing a build in Central America. I've spent a reasonable amount of time there over the years and like to do something beyond just tourism,

    1. You're welcome! I hope you are able to find a build location that matches your schedule. Being already familiar with an area will give you a head start on understanding existing struggles.