Recycling lessons with Habitat for Humanity

Photo: Joan McDougall (left), Doña Irene Costa (right)

I hugged Doña Irene and tried to say thank you, but only tears dribbled down my dusty cheeks. I hadn't expected to lose control of my emotions, usually I don't get emotionally involved and just donate money. But the others were crying too. In Portuguese Doña Irene she was calling us her "angels" but the truth was we were just folks who had extra time and the means to travel outside our normal comfort zone. We were Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteers.

Our team consisted of two Canadians, nine Americans and one UK resident, ranging in age from 22 to 74. Each of us had the good fortune to be well educated, well fed and living with plenty of taken-for-granted comforts like an indoor bathroom, stove to cook on, televisions, computers, cars and closets full of clothes. Millionaires Millard and Linda Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity International in 1976 after working with low-income families trapped in the poverty cycle because they could never afford a conventional mortgage. Today the organization spans the globe and remains true to the Fuller's vision. Each homeowner family helps in the construction of their new home, alongside volunteers. The owners pay for their home over a 20-year period without profit or interest and their payments are used to build more homes. The program was developed to keep the costs low but also to develop a sense of pride and achievement.

I volunteered for Habitat's Global Village program with virtually no carpentry skills and little humanitarian do-goodness in my heart. Behind us was the simple house we helped build near Braga, in northern Portugal. The walls were up, the cement ceiling in place and the framed roof was ready for the red clay tiles that were piled adjacent to the windowless shack, the current home of the Costa family. In sharp contrast, the old roof was patched together with plastic sheets and rocks. Inside, above the mud floors was a stray cat with five kittens occupying the only soft chair. Daughter Liliana lives temporarily in a convent because the mould and dampness in their current home effected her health. She wants to be the only person in her family to complete high school. Her older brothers, Paulo and Fernando, both worked tirelessly with us on their only day off from the farm where they are employed. The 400 hours of sweat equity is a requirement of all Habitat families, in return for an interest free mortgage.

There is no volunteer culture among the Portuguese, which has been a major challenge for the local Habitat group. As the village curiosity, we helped raise awareness and eyebrows. But recycling, in this poor country where there is no excess, needs no mass marketing campaign. It is expected. João Cruz, the local Habitat co-ordinator said, "Almost all the building materials are made here in Portugal, we always buy from local companies. But occasionally we are fortunate to get doors or windows that people donate to us." I'm now ashamed of my initial grumbling when I was given the task of removing and straightening hundreds of nails and piled old boards I thought better destined for the trash.

Indeed Doña Irene's earthbound angels acquired far more than aching muscles. We learned some humbling green lessons from four individuals who have never travelled more than five kilometers from their home. I've since adopted the Costa rainwater collection system for my garden, replacing the olive cans with ice cream tubs and abandoning my water wasting hose. I now know that small things do make a difference. My volunteer time left me with a sense of achievement and an unforgettable holiday with new friends. Gandhi's words, "Be the change you wish to see in the world," on the back of my volunteer T-shirt will be what propels me to my next Habitat build site.

Joan McDougall is a freelance writer in Bedford, Nova Scotia.