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Building Community, One House at a Time

Building Community, One House at a Time
With amazing grace and a few hundred cinderblocks,
a new home rises in the Dominican Republic.

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. More will follow.

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 teams organized by Habitat For Humanity International, the organization founded by Millard Fuller in 1976. Based in Americus, Ga., Habitat builds houses for low-income residents in every state in the U.S. and more than 60 countries abroad.

Habitat volunteersMany of Habitat's most dedicated volunteers come from college campuses, and the organization's chapter at Keene State is among the most active, recognized last year as the most outstanding chapter in the Northeast. In 10 years of service, its more than 1,000 student members have built seven houses in New Hampshire and Vermont, and many more in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas in the annual ritual for students and staff called Alternative Spring Break. In 2002 they undertook their first international build in Costa Rica. Early this year, when they traveled to the Dominican Republic, I had the good fortune to be with them, along with my daughter Rachel, who documented the trip on video for Habitat.

From Day One, things just seemed to flow. No one told us what to do when we first arrived on site; we just naturally formed a human chain to pass cinderblocks (hundreds of them by the time we had finished). By watching the locals, we began the arduous task of mixing cement ("Brutal!" as one student put it). Someone taught us how to cut and shape the rebar that would fortify the cinder blocks and keep them in place. ("I learned it in 32 seconds," said Student Center administrative assistant Mike Ward, sweat dripping from his nose, "and now I'm afraid I've got it wrong and the houses will fall down!") We lugged buckets of water, learned how to fill the spaces between blocks with mortar, and more. I conquered my fear of heights and mounted a shaky scaffold; Rachel filmed from the roof of a finished house nearby.

Don Hayes, community services coordinator at the College, is notably proud of the students he works with. "It's rewarding to see them mature from building and participating in cultural exchange," he said. "It brings home to them the suffering in the world, but that they can make a difference. We all learn that there is pride, dignity, and happiness even in the face of poverty."

Habitat house photoStudents also learn leadership and fundraising skills; for several months prior to the trip, they work to raise money for supplies and expenses. On site, they learn how to dig foundations, raise and mortar cinderblock walls, make cement, cut and tie steel rebar supports, and perform other building tasks. It's hard work in a hot, humid climate.

But students like Pam Stinson 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," Stinson said. "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."

Everyone in the community joins in. 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 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 Rachel, 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. The boys, many in school uniform, watched more seriously, intrigued by Sony technology.

One night, the community held a special church service in our honor to give thanks for our work. In the small, dimly lit wooden church of La Hoya, the sermon was speckled with frequent "Gracias Dios y gracias Habitat," restless children moved from their mothers to other women who seem always ready to give respite, and the congregation sang. Then they invited us to sing. After a brief negotiation, we offered up a round of "Amazing Grace," and it would have been hard to find a dry eye among us.

It's extraordinary to see what can happen in just five days when a community of old and new friends comes 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. Soon, like their new neighbors, they will live in a house with two small bedrooms and a bath. It too will be furnished with religious icons, plastic flowers, a small refrigerator, and a stove. And it will overflow with pride and joy. As student Katelyn Cromer says, "Seeing the happiness on their faces is absolutely amazing." That happiness is reflected in Christina's smile, and the words of one of her daughters. "Ay, Mami, soon we will move from a wooden house to a silver house! Gracias Habitat!"

For many volunteers as well as for the housing recipients, a Habitat build can be a life-altering experience. Mike "Miguel" Ward said he was "humbled by the community spirit and the families" he met, who had "little material wealth but a huge reservoir of human connection." Mark Gempler, assistant director of operations for the Student Center, came away knowing "that I need to simplify and do more with less." Student Krista Zielinski learned "how to be more at peace, and that you have to be happy in life." Rachel and I marveled at the warmth of the people we had just met who opened their homes and hearts to us so fully and who so quickly seemed like lifetime friends.

And no matter what our individual experiences, we all agreed with Pam Stinson: "It was simply an amazing grace I will never forget."

Elayne Clift is a writer and adjunct professor at Keene State College.
Her daughter, Rachel Clift, is a New York-based filmmaker.