Habitat for Humanity - FSLTrip to Romania Easter 2016
On Saturday 19 March a team of twelve pupils and four staff had a very different start to the Easter holidays. Following a year of fundraising, planning and preparation, we were all about to embark on our first Habitat for Humanity global village trip.
I am sure most of us have heard of Habitat for Humanity, but for many of us on the trip, it wasn’t until our host co-ordinator, Alex, told us, that we really understood how Habitat for Humanity came about. Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976. He became a self-made millionaire at the age of twenty-nine through his own marketing firm, but as the business prospered his health, integrity and marriage suffered. These crises prompted Fuller to re-evaluate his values and direction. His soul-searching led to reconciliation with his wife and a renewal of his Christian commitment. The Fullers then took a drastic step: they sold off their possessions, gave the money to the poor and began searching for a new focus for their lives. This search led them to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community located near Americus, Georgia, where people were looking for practical ways to apply Christ’s teachings. Here they built modest houses on a no-profit, no-interest basis, thus making homes affordable for families with low incomes. Homeowner families were expected to invest their own labour into the building of their home and the houses of other families. This reduced the cost of the house, increased the pride of ownership and fostered the development of positive relationships. Money for building was placed into a revolving fund, enabling the building of even more homes. These remain the basic principles of Habitat today. Through its work, thousands of low income families have found new hope in the form of affordable housing. Churches, community groups and others have joined together to successfully tackle a significant social problem―decent housing for all. Since 1976, Habitat has helped 6.8 million people find strength, stability and independence through safe, decent and affordable shelter. On Saturday, after a seven o’clock farewell from Mr Moore, a compulsory pit stop in Applegreen’s for a team breakfast and a quick dash through Dublin airport, the team touched down in Bucharest, Romania. We were greeted by Alex and two volunteers, Tyler and Stefania, and despite our exhaustion, we were all very excited to be in our host country. During the week we stayed and worked in Ploiesti, a relatively large city of around a quarter of a million people. Before we began the hard work, we got to experience the Romanian culture. This of course meant trying out the local delicacies, which included pork and veal, polenta which is pretty much just boiled cornmeal and deep fried cheese donuts. Matthew and I even pushed ourselves to try brains and one of the locals, Nykol, made us Chec, a fruitcake, which was very well received by us on our final break. On Sunday, we got to visit two of Romania’s castles. The long bus trip was the perfect opportunity to take in the scenery of the beautiful countryside. The first castle we visited was Peles, nestled at the foot of the Bucegi Mountains in the picturesque town of Sinaia. It is a masterpiece of German new-Renaissance architecture, considered by many one of the most stunning castles in Europe. Serving as the summer residence of the royal family until 1947, its one hundred and sixty rooms are adorned with the finest examples of European art, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows and Cordoba leather-covered walls. Perched high on a two hundred foot rock, overlooking the picturesque village of Bran, is Bran Castle, first documented in 1377. It is surrounded by an aura of mystery and legend, owing its fame to the myth created around Bram Stocker's Dracula, as well as its imposing towers and turrets. Narrow winding stairways lead through some sixty timbered rooms, housing collections of furniture, weapons and armour dating from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Exploring the castles and the local markets gave us a greater appreciation of a beautiful culture and allowed the team to draw closer together before we began our hard labour the next day. Thankfully the weather was lovely for our day as tourists but unfortunately it did not hold up for the remainder of the week. Cold conditions left us very thankful for Stefania’s warm-ups, and the rain made the ground fairly slippery as Jamie was unfortunate enough to find out. Monday marked our first working day as volunteers. Romania may be our European neighbour, but the reality of housing poverty makes it seem a world away. Five million Romanians live in poor housing conditions, with thirty-five per cent of homes in urgent need of repair, and a staggering forty-one per cent of the population with no access to running water. Like many across Romania, low income families in Ploiesti cannot afford a mortgage to buy their own home. There are only three hundred and ten social housing units in Ploiesti, all of which are occupied. As a result, many live with extended family in overcrowded conditions, meaning that children have no space to play or study and the parents have no privacy. The houses we worked on were part of the ‘Eight New Homes’ project. This provides eight families with social problems and low income with a new home. The quadruplex system allows four homes to be built under one roof, making it more energy and cost efficient. The houses are built from the foundations to the finishing paint, with the support of both Romanian and international volunteers, the residents themselves and also many companies who donate building materials. Nearly three hundred international volunteers and several Romanian companies have worked hard to improve the housing conditions. The houses we worked on were started last spring and are due to be finished next spring. We cannot wait to return to see the finished homes. One woman we worked alongside, Nykol, toils hard to raise four children and we found it difficult to hold back the tears as she told us she had waited thirty years for her home. She was very appreciative of our efforts and said, "I find it incredible how these children of sixteen or seventeen years have left school, family and parents to come and work as volunteers. They worked every day for eight hours, without complaining about anything. I was impressed”. Two of the others we worked alongside were Manuel, who had two children and Mihaela who had three. Working with both the families and the professional builders was a truly uplifting experience that I know we’ll never forget. On our first day we began by insulating the rooms. The team felt like astronauts as we put on our white overalls and masks to protect us from the skin and eye irritation caused by insulation, as well as respiratory problems. However, the masks themselves caused their own respiratory problems, as the heavy breathing that came with all the hard work created soggy masks and safety glasses full of condensation. We were all relieved to be greeted with the news that this apparel was not required for the rest of the week, as all the insulating had been done the previous day. We split into teams of four to begin putting the dry wall into place. While the spirit of good will and charity was still floating about, the competitive nature of everyone began to kick in to see who could complete their room first. After conquering the skills of teamwork, upper body strength and trigonometry for the tricky corners, the girls proved to be the elite of construction. On Wednesday when the work was done, we travelled to a completed Habitat Project. We were taken to a school for local children. It was cool to be able to interact with the children despite the language barrier. This Eco-School is just one of many examples of how Habitat gives to the community. It was great to see just how much the local community had benefited from their work, which was evident by the smiles on the faces of the staff and pupils. On Thursday we returned to work and began to plaster the walls, which as Ellen found out, was messy work. Though the work was hard, we made it through as a team, with optimism, sprinkled with constant singing and laughter getting us through the day. We even had a special visit from a Romanian reporter who came to talk to us about our fundraising efforts, in particular Cliodhna, for her attempts at seven world records in seven days. Unfortunately our last day came. To celebrate our hard work and effort, a barbeque was held on site for the team and families of the soon-to-be residents. It was a very emotional time for all of us, but I couldn’t have asked for better people to surround me at this time. There wasn’t a dry eye as we said farewell to our new friends, but for many of us we knew this wasn’t a final goodbye. While the trip was short, what we achieved is permanent. The work was difficult, but as time passes what will remain is the gratitude of the families, who, thanks to our effort can now provide a better future for their children. Though we were crying, we left with smiles on our faces, knowing what positive life-changing effects we had made. We were asked to come and build houses, but the support we gave was much greater than the physical effort, as we created something truly special: a bridge between those who need help and those who are there to offer it. As we worked alongside the local people we communicated a powerful message – the poor are not forgotten. We would like to extend our thanks to last year’s home team for their fantastic fundraising efforts through Colour Me FSL. The funds raised went towards the charitable donation required for the trip. We would like to particularly thank Mr Moore, Mr Chestnutt and all of the Habitat NI Team who worked together to give us this amazing experience. It was a unique opportunity to come alongside communities in need, learn about global development, work as part of team and develop new skills. I would strongly encourage everyone to get involved with this fantastic charity.