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Being a
Habitat for Humanity volunteer

Written by Laura Coulter, 6 years ago, 6 Comments
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Samba to the worksite!  My Habitat for Humanity volunteer build in Limoerio, Brazil combined sweat, laughter, muscle ache, heart ache, rice, beans, sunshine, international volunteers, Portuguese and yes, samba music. 

Over the summer, I participated in a volunteer tourism trip organized through Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program. As a team of 15, we worked for two weeks to help build homes for families in need.

Our hosts were generous, quick to laugh and hard-working.  Many of the homeowners would finish their 12-16 hour shift at the factory to come and join us to work on the homes.

Our jobs included: sifting and shoveling sand, carrying bricks and making concrete. We also shoveled dirt, looked for more dirt to move, and made round after round of a gravel-concrete mixture; first for the foundation of the house and then a slightly thinner mixture for the mortar.

After the first day, our arms ached, we were dehydrated and everyone questioned if we could make it through the two weeks.  Apparently, our desk jobs hadn’t prepared us for working all day in the sun!  But after a hearty meal and a good night’s sleep, the Habitat volunteers were fresh and ready for the next day.

Being a woman in Feira Nova

We were hosted by the local Habitat affiliate in Feira Nova.  This affiliate has been working on a 100 Home project. We were charmed by their friendly and welcoming attitude and continually treated to their accommodating nature. The project aims to support 100 women that scrape manioc at a local factory.  All the women pay to rent houses, in most cases sharing the same living space with several relatives. Looking for a solution, HFH Brazil was invited to integrate the actions on the Rebuilding Women’s Lives Project.

The city of Feira Nova is located 77 km from the capital Recife.  It has a population of 19,000 with a large rural economy that has a significant presence of family farming and the production chain of manioc. There is a lack of public housing, forcing these women and their families to pay high rent to live near the factories.

Known as “houses of flour”, the boxes where the women work are inhumane.  Early working ages has been increasingly common in this region, bringing major impacts on education and integration of women into the workplace.  A significant part of scrapers are in the age of 13 to 30 years with no other alternative of employment to survive.

Over 60 percent of the women at the factory are heads of families.  The income obtained from these women in the “houses of flour” is heart-breakingly low:  85 percent of them receive less then $94 per month.  For each 100 kg of peeled cassava, they earn 94 cents.  They usually work in 15 hour shifts, often returning home to care for young children.  We toured one of the local factories and were amazed at the huge amount of cassava needed to be peeled.

Working together with locals

Back at the work site, our jobs changed daily depending on what was needed at the three house sites. Everyone was allowed to try the different tasks and we soon found ourselves gravitating towards what came easily or was carefully taught to us.  For one mother and daughter team from California, it was brick laying.  These two volunteers got into the rhythm of laying the bricks and soon were miles, rather walls, ahead of the rest of the team.

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Habitat always hires local, trained professionals who work full-time on the job site. Their job, sometimes reluctantly, is to work with the volunteers, help correct our mistakes and to keep us on task. After eight volunteer builds, these masons were the most generous, gracious, helpful workers I have yet encountered.  It’s a tough job to work with volunteers. Initially, our enthusiasm was through the roof with people scurrying all over the place, offering to do everything and with no training – usually messing it up. As the week wore on and the sun and physical work wore us down, the masons picked up the slack and got us back on task.

Being a Habitat for Humanity volunteer

The Habitat volunteers were a mix of ages, professions and nationalities.  We were lucky to have a group of young, college-age American guys who were full of energy to run the wheelbarrows (full of wet concrete) up to the house site.  They even had enough energy leftover to give all the children piggy-back races at the end of the day.

Most of the volunteers hoped to go home in better shape and maybe a few pounds lighter. That wasn’t the case on this build, as with each meal, we were treated to a buffet of tasty local dishes.

Brazilians love meat and we were able to try national foods such as Feijoada (black beans) with Farofa (toasted manioc meal), which is an essential condiment for many Brazilian stews. Meat was often served with Brazilian-style rice, which is prepared with tomatoes, onions and garlic, and washed down with the famous Caipirinha (lime drink with cachaca rum). We also went out several evenings for churassco – the Brazilian barbecue.  Each evening, we would try a different restaurant in the small city, returning several times to our favorite.  We also discovered a cake shop that soon became part of our daily routine.  No one went home lighter.

Our accommodation was basic but did allow for a bit of privacy with two or three people per room in the local motel. The staff were more than gracious about our appearance, which after a day of shoveling concrete, left much to be desired!  Sharing the rooms helped towards team-building and several nights found us staying in the hotel, playing board games, talking and reading. The town of Limoeiro was quite small but we managed to find a few local watering holes for a refreshing drink.

On the weekend, the Habitat volunteers had a break from the worksite and were treated with a cultural rest and relaxation trip. The “R & R” included going into the larger city of Recife, staying at a more upscale hotel and taking in a national craft exhibition with vendors from all over South America. I was also able to spend some time on the famous Brazilian beaches! Despite it being winter, I soaked up the sun and the tasty caiprinihas, Brazil’s famous cocktail.

Week two of being a Habitat for Humanity volunteer

Our second week on the project saw us working in a more confident manner and making progress on the house. At our first house site, the walls were up and we were able to put the roof on. That signaled a big shift in the amount of work that we had already completed. We worked until the end of the second week on two more homes and were able to get the walls finished up to the rafters. The next volunteer team, combined with the paid masons, will continue from there.

A football match for the second to last day was organized against the local children who had been hanging around the site. On the day, it appeared that word of the match had spread when a van load of locals arrived to watch the game. Needless to say, the Habitat volunteers lost but we provided a great source of laughter for the locals. The children were kind enough to allow us one goal scored, although we could see that was after a heated debate!

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Our final day at the work site was filled with laughter, tears, photos, stickers, and a big feast with the entire crew.  Several homeowners were in attendance and while many weren’t able to express their feelings in English, their strong hugs and tearful ‘thank you’s’ got their feeling across.   

Each volunteer had different reasons for participating on the Habitat build and each left with a special memory in their heart.  I was inspired by the grace of the local people, their easy smiles and hard work.  A volunteer vacation, while not always easy, leaves you with more memories then a suitcase full of souvenirs.

For more information about Habitat for Humanity, as well as a list of international builds, please look at  Laura participated in a Global Village Build, found under the Volunteer section.  Volunteers are expected to pay their own way to the building destination, as well as a trip participant fee.  More information can be found on the site.

Have you been or considering being a Habitat for Humanity volunteer? Or maybe you’ve volunteered on another project? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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  1. ConcepcionFebruary 21, 2013, 1:10 pm

    Good answer back in return of this question with real arguments and
    telling all regarding that.

  2. MigAugust 30, 2013, 10:58 pm

    That’s great to read you were able to put up the roof on your build. We did quite a bit to set up the walls, but the next group after us was going to finish the rest. Meeting and working with others who share similar values to help others on a volunteer vacation makes the experience wonderful.

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