Helping others help themselves

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Helping others help themselves

Of all the viruses people suffer from around the world, there is one that I wish would spread faster: Habitat Virus.
That, according to Choe Seong-rak, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Korea, is the “virus” that compels people to volunteer for her nonprofit organization, which builds houses for people in need.
I caught the bug earlier this month in Gangneung, Gangwon province, as a volunteer at the Korea Blitz Build 2003, building houses for people in that area who lost their homes when a typhoon last summer caused massive flooding. Nearly 1,200 homes were lost to Typhoon Rusa in Gangneung alone; thousands of families in the affected regions are still living in converted shipping containers provided by the government.
Thanks to Habitat for Humanity, some of those families will be moving into new homes soon. Worldwide, Habitat for Humanity has built homes for more than half a million people in 2,000 communities. Volunteers donate their labor, but the families who receive the new homes have to do their part, too, by putting in 500 hours of labor themselves.
At 5:30 a.m. on Aug. 4, my dad and I left home, each of us carrying a bulky bag, for the Dongjak-dong Cemetery park to catch a chartered bus to Gangneung. The bus left for the east coast at 7 a.m., a little behind schedule. After several hours we arrived at Kwandong University, where a dormitory would be our home for the next six days.
Coincidentally, all three of my bunkmates were also studying in the United States. After lunch and an opening ceremony, the instructors gave us some general instructions about building houses. Most of us had never done anything like this before.
The next day, we awoke at 6:30 a.m. After a delicious breakfast, we piled onto the bus and headed to the building site. There were five incomplete buildings ― just foundations and frames ― that we were to finish by the end of the week. Each building would contain four housing units. About 60 volunteers were assigned to each building, along with some professionals. I went to work on building No. 4.
After praying together for the safe completion of our work, at last we started sawing and hammering. Our first task was to nail sheets of plywood to the outer part of the building. Meanwhile, the professional builders were using cranes to carry the trusses to the roof.
We volunteers were awkward at first. I was terrible at driving nails; it took me at least 15 swings of the hammer to get one all the way in. But after a couple of days, we all became competent at our various tasks. I improved my technique and could eventually drive nails as fast as the adult volunteers.
“It’s great how I got to learn some basic construction techniques and interact with people of various ages,” said Kim Bum-seek, a junior at Hebron Academy in Maine and a first-time Habitat volunteer. “I’m planning to come here again next year with a group of friends.” Looks like somebody else caught the Habitat Virus, too.
The construction site was filled with all kinds of sounds ― hammers banging, drills buzzing, saws cutting. It was an exuberant atmosphere. Everyone seemed lively, spirited and zealous; they followed the instructions of the crew leaders and worked hard. It was amazing how so many people who didn’t even know each other, and had never worked in the construction field, could all get together and build a house.
“I like seeing people getting together and building something out of nothing,” said Michelle Choi, a freshman at Northwestern University who was in her fourth year of volunteering with Habitat.
Most of the work volunteers like me did was hammering. We also did a lot of hauling. At one point, we had to carry gypsum boards that weighed 38 kilograms (84 pounds) each. For me, nailing shingles on the roof was the most exciting part. On the first day, I was a little scared just to work on the third floor ― I didn’t dare look down. But I spent most of the last two days on the roof, and had no problem looking over the edge.
The volunteers were a diverse bunch. Some came in groups from a company or a school club. Others came alone, most of them on their vacation time. Though we all came from different backgrounds, we were all united by our goal: building houses for people who needed them.
“I like the fact that students are working hard, sweating and doing jobs that they would never get to do,” said Kevin Morrissey, a Seoul International School teacher, who came with another teacher and 27 students. “And it’s also nice to see them get dirty and help other people who are less fortunate.”
As days passed, the structures gradually started to resemble buildings. The trusses were up and the roof decking nailed down; the roof was first covered with Tyvek, an undercoating, and then the shingles were put down. For the exterior walls, OSB plywood was put up and covered with a waterproof house wrap; then white siding was put on.
Working alongside the homes’ future tenants was delightful. Not only were they the most assiduous workers on the building site, they were warm-hearted, amicable people. They offered the volunteers snacks, cold water and salt pills during breaks. They drove me to work even harder. I felt proud that I was able to be a part of helping these people.
The weather was hot, sunny and really draining. The snacks at break time, like ice cream, watermelon, corn and potatoes, tasted fantastic after hours of hard, sweaty work.
The nighttime activities that Habitat for Humanity planned for us were a lot of fun. One night we went to see a wonderful opera, “Bom Bom,” by the Korean composer Lee Heo-suk, followed by a fashion show, at the Pyeongchang Buckwheat Blossom Opera Festival.
Before we knew it, the roof was on and the exteriors of the buildings were done. Another group of volunteers would arrive the next week to work on the interiors, but our time in Gangneung was up.
On the last day, Eum Du-won, 46, one of the future tenants, whose family was chosen from 200 who applied, thanked us. “It’s hard for people to help others, especially when they might not be all that comfortable themselves,” he said. “I feel so grateful for the volunteers who have paid their own way here and have given their time and effort to help people they had never met.
“Since the volunteers and the tenants have built the houses together,” he said, “I’m sure that our village, sarang ui maeul [village of love] will live up to its name and be filled with love.” He was optimistic that the houses would be ready for his family, and the 19 other families of their village, to move into by October.
Back at home, as I looked at a group photo of grinning workers, at my hard hat covered with notes from the other volunteers and at my notebook full of e-mail addresses and phone numbers, I felt so happy that I’d gotten to know such great people. During my Habitat experience, I saw hope, and the kind of noble selflessness that makes me confident in a bright future for Korea. Without hesitation, I can say it was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

by Woojung Chang
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