Communities can be built on vacation – one house, one student at a time.
Her name is Christine and she and her husband have waited eight years for the tiny two-bedroom cinderblock house that will soon be ready for their family to occupy.
In the pueblo of La Hoya in the Dominican Republic, a dry and dusty place three hours southwest of the capital, Santo Domingo, there are already several gaily painted homes similar to theirs, and more will follow. In the week that I spend with a group of students from a small college in New Hampshire, there will be two more, Christina’s and another. These solid dwellings, painfully small by American standards but luxurious to most of the country’s indigenous poor, have been built by community members with the aid of Habitat for Humanity International, the organization that aims to eliminate poverty and homelessness worldwide.
Many of Habitat’s most dedicated volunteers come from college campuses. The organization’s chapter at the college where I am an adjunct professor is among the most active. Its student members have built houses in New England, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas as well as Costa Rica. This time they will travel to the Dominican Republic and I have the good fortune to be with them, along with my own daughter, a documentary filmmaker who will capture the trip for Habitat.
We’d begun meeting to plan and fundraise months ahead of the trip, a useful time to get to know each other and for the group to bond. I am the oldest member of the team and one of only two adult women. The other adults are a nurse, another teacher and two administrators. There are twelve students, most of them female. Among them are shy Chris, who brings his carpentry skills; energetic Pam, who “can do anything a man can do”; Amanda and Patty, who both speak some Spanish; and petite Amy, who is quiet but dependable. Mark, one of the administrators and a typical American guy, turns out to be a hit with the village kids.
From Day One, things just seem to flow. No one tells us what to do when we first arrive on site; we just naturally form a human chain to pass cinder blocks (hundreds of them by the time we had finished). By watching the locals, we begin the arduous task of mixing cement (“Brutal!” as one student put it). Someone teaches us how to cut and shape rebar to fortify the cinder blocks and keep them in place. (“I learned it in 32 seconds,” Mike said, sweat dripping from his nose, “and now I’m afraid I’ve got it wrong and the houses will fall down!”) We lug buckets of water, learn how to fill the spaces between blocks with mortar, and more. I conquer my fear of heights and mount a shaky scaffold; my daughter films from the roof of a finished house nearby, which she reached by ladder, her camera slung over her shoulder.
At day’s end, we climb aboard the two vans that transport us back to the hotel, hot, sweaty, thirsty, and proud of our teamwork. Several of us head for a table outside the restaurant and order cold beers, laughing about the day’s mishaps and adventures, before showering for our communal dinner.
It’s wonderful working with these kids. They give it everything they’ve got. “The sun was hot, the work was hard, and I was tired. But I didn’t want to stop,” one of them says. “I didn’t want to miss the action and I wanted to get as much done as I could for the families. Sometimes I felt like I was cheating them by taking a break.”
I feel as proud of them as if they were all my own brood. And it’s lovely sharing it with one of my own children. I watch her connecting with the village families with the same pleasure I derive from observing the students, most of whom have never traveled outside the U.S. before. I love that they treat me with respect but without deference. When we go rafting on our day off and I fall out of the boat, they haul me in as if I were a beached whale without the slightest bit of embarrassment. And when the community has a prayer service to thank us, we all link arms like comrades who have shared an experience it won’t be easy to talk about when we get home.
Everyone in the community joins in our enthusiasm. Children quickly learn to imitate adult labor; women pour water into huge vats and then small buckets, men on scaffolds slather mortar and gently correct the gringos who’ve never built a house before. But it’s not all work. During lunch break, the guys play baseball. Kids climb trees. Little girls like Isamar write songs and letters for their new friends. In the universal language of smiles and hand gestures, women share their lives and families, and proudly show off their homes.
One abuela, who took me for a grandmother as well because I loved playing with Christina’s baby, insisted that I come to her dirt-floor wooden house to refresh myself. In my broken Spanish and her nonexistent English, we became friends and she made sure I knew that no matter what I needed, her casa was mi casa. Israel and his wife, who live in a beautiful blue and white Habitat house, insisted that I come to them to change my clothes on the day we left, and their small daughter eagerly awaits a second visit from her new amiga Americana. Children of all ages flocked around my daughter, fascinated by her video camera. In their overalls and T-shirts the girls, hair neatly plaited or tied with brightly colored plastic ornaments, grinned into the lens and laughingly competed for attention.
It was all wonderful and extraordinary. So much can happen in just a week when a community of old and new friends, young and old, come together with purpose. Two holes in the ground metamorphose into the exterior walls of a home. Two cultures become one neighborhood. Two families who have waited for eight years suddenly see hope. And a group of young adults quietly flourishes from what they have seen, learned, and accomplished. I feel proud to have been their chaperon, mentor, partner – and in one case, mother. My daughter and I have shared many travel experiences together, including one in Guatemala that involved her videoing. But somehow, this trip was special. Perhaps it was that I got to be ersatz mom to an entire group of kids who warmed my heart. I’m proud of each and every one of them.
Elayne Clift, a writer and former adjunct professor at Keene State College, participated in the Global Village mission to the Dominican Republic in January 2003. Her daughter, Rachel, is a New York-based producer and filmmaker. She is a writer and former adjunct professor at Keene State College and mother of 2 adults.