CULTURE

Volunteers help in homebuilding

Last summer some young Greek students went on an unusual kind of working holiday in Hungary; they were part of a team of volunteers with Global Village, a program designed to introduce people to the work of Habitat for Humanity, an international organization that provides decent, affordable housing in areas where homes are substandard or non-existent. Jimmy Carter, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a former US president, has been spending summer vacations for 25 years with Habitat for Humanity and is the organization’s most well-known volunteer. In fact his work with the organization was one of the reasons he won the Nobel Prize. Essentially what Habitat for Humanity does is bring together «people with resources and people in need,» according to Douglas Dahlgren, who works for Habitat in Europe and Central Asia. How it works Although a non-denominational Christian organization, it does not discriminate according to race, religion or ethnic group, and it welcomes all people to join in building houses in partnership with those in need of adequate shelter. The houses are built with local materials where possible, to fit in with existing building styles. Energy-efficient, environmentally friendly construction is also promoted. Local affiliates coordinate house building and select partner families, who are chosen according to their need, their ability to repay the no-profit, no-interest mortgage, and their willingness to work in partnership with Habitat. Since 1976, when the organization was founded by Millard Fuller in the US, it has built more than 125,000 houses in more than 80 countries, including some 45,000 houses across the US. It is not a charity; in addition to a deposit and monthly payments used to build still more Habitat houses, homeowners must invest hundreds of hours of their own labor – called «sweat equity» – in building their own homes and those of others. However, the houses are affordable for low-income families because there is no profit included in the sale price and no interest charged on the mortgage, which varies from seven to 30 years. The cost of the houses themselves varies from as little as $800 in some developing countries to an average of $46,600 in the US. The money for the construction comes from the mortgage payments, as well as donations of money and materials. As there is not yet a Habitat affiliate in Greece, the group from Athens (five adults and nine students) joined a group with Global Village. Their experience was so positive that some of them went back, and are planning on going back in future, for more. The team was able to put ceilings in five two-bedroom homes, put up walls in four of the five homes, and dug ditches for electrical cables, among other work. Very few had any experience in construction or in volunteer work but Habitat provides skilled supervision to accommodate all ages and skill levels. Giving and taking The local people gained by the help with building their own homes, but both locals and foreign volunteers gained from meeting and working closely with people from other countries, something that tourists seldom experience. «This was the best experience of my life. I feel that I’ve become a better person who has gained so much (friends, skills, images). I will never forget the Hungarians’ hospitality, their kindness,» said Despina Georgiadi. «It proves what humans are capable of achieving together with their fellow human beings, if they really put their hearts into it. Besides, it is wonderful to make Greek friends, to interact with them and to learn from them. I had a great time,» said Filiz Telek of Turkey, who has been working for Habitat for six months. Karen Mills, an American resident of Greece, went with her family to Dunavarsany, Hungary, to participate in the Global Village project after her daughter became involved in it. «We paid for our room and board; after all, we were going there to help. And we also took some simple tools, such as working gloves, which we left there afterward. But Global Village looks after us when we are there. The local people were very hospitable, and found things for us to do after work (if we weren’t too tired), such as taking us out to eat or on excursions. You really form a bond, you make friends, and it’s fun!» said Mills, who with Larry Winecoff, was co-leader of the Athens volunteers in Dunavarsany. Connie Burke, a Greek American who has been living in Greece for many years, is chairperson of the Athens steering committee setting up «Friends of Habitat for Humanity.» The committee is working to have the group recognized as a non-governmental organization in Greece. «We plan to raise funds to sponsor volunteers to go on Global Village trips abroad, initially, and then eventually to refurbish homes of the needy in Greece,» Burke told Kathimerini English Edition. If anyone is interested in the group, they can contact her by e-mail (Burke[email protected]). For the moment, if individuals or small groups want to participate in a project abroad, they can get in touch with Global Village, which organizes short-term mission trips to various countries. For further information, visit the organization’s website (www.habitat.org).