Nancy Heslin participated in the first Canadian housing build in Piteşti, Romania, with Habitat for Humanity International. Here she came across faces and places that will not soon be forgotten.
Voluntourism – or responsible tourism for the socially conscious – is currently the fastest growing sector within the tourism industry. While sipping Mojitos in Mexico may be an ideal vacation for some, giving back to the community through reputable associations like Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) provides a more meaningful first-hand exposure to new cultures for others.
Dire need of a house
Founded in 1976, HFHI seeks to wipe out poverty and homelessness around the world by enabling Habitat houses, constructed by volunteered labour and donations, to be sold at no profit – with affordable loans – to selected families. Today, HFHI counts on 2100 affiliates in 92 countries, including Romania. Starting with its first build in Beius in 1996, it has successfully been tackling the crisis of the 6.5 million Romanians living in poverty (plus some 2.4 million extreme cases) and has provided dignified housing opportunities for over 850 families. The waiting list for Habitat Housing is extensive and each HFHI applicant must meet three requirements: to be in dire need of a house (usually given to “families who have the best chance of making good on this opportunity to escape poverty housing”), to volunteer 500 to 1500 hours of on-site build- ing time and to be in a financial situation to pay monthly mortgage instalments between €15 to €62.
On the Piteşti site (about 100 km north-east of Bucharest), I met HFHI recipient Claudia (pictured centre, with Canadian team), a young Romanian teacher trying to accumulate her hours for her new apartment. Claudia, a newlywed of one year who currently lives with her husband’s family in small quarters, arrived every morning at the site with her sparkling eyes and boundless enthusiasm before heading off to one of her three jobs in the afternoon. She has no choice; rent is totally disproportionate to income in Romania. To give an example, monthly rent in Bucharest runs between €300 to €600 but a Romanian salary averages €225 per month. This is why HFHI’s campaign remains crucial.
In Romania, the building projects (pictured above) involve renovating existing structures into liveable accommodation: 21 sqm studios and 90 sqm apartments for families of many children. But these are just logistics. HFHI’s bigger challenge in the former Communist country is “breaking down that perception of volunteering” – which used to be something Romanians “had to do”.
Being part of the solution
“It’s giving back to the community,” Canadian Kathie Feick (above, left) told me, “and being part of the solution.” This was the third HFHI build for Kathie and her husband Max (a regional Habitat director in Nanaimo, BC) and they’re counted amongst the 12,000 annual volunteers for HFHI’s Global Village short-term builds. Kathie again: “Every aspect of HFHI is enjoyable. You meet new people and learn about a culture from interacting with the locals.”
Brenda Scarlett (above, right), a teacher at Bayridge Secondary School in Kingston, Ontario, chose to do more than simply talk the talk with her students. “I wanted to teach them something that’s not just from a text- book. Now I can go back and say, ‘I took a semester off to volunteer in Europe and Asia. And you know what? It was hard.’” Has Brenda’s social awareness been soaked up by her students? Well, from Romania she and her husband, Nick, will travel on to Uganda to visit villages where Bayridge students provided protective malaria nets by raising $1050 with Buy-a-Net – and then they’ll continue on to Hyderabad, India to witness a new water-well that was donated by ... Bayridge.
I asked Laura Ferent, Global Village Manager for HFHI Europe and Central Asia, to estimate the total cost to participate in a HFHI Romania build. “Departing from Paris with Air France with a ticket purchased one month in advance, the cost for the trip would be around €1600 per person with the Radauti affiliate – this is the most expensive site in Romania due to the in-country transportation – or if you chose the Beius affiliate it would be €1390. This includes accommodation, food, transportation, R&R costs, insurance, donation and team leader costs for the nine days.” R&R – or “cultural experiences” – could mean market or museum visits, walking tours or, as in my case, a road trip to Bran to visit Dracula’s Castle. You’ll also meet local families who will one day live in the apartment you are constructing.
Would I say this experience profoundly changed my life? Absolutely, but not because I can add a good deed badge on my sleeve. There is always humility in integrating with those who have so little and yet live a life so rich. As Kathie put it, “There’s a place for everybody with HFHI and these families that you’re helping, they’re real people.”