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November 5, 2001

Some 'work' not work at all

By David Bray



I believe that “volunteer work” is a misnomer. I have yet to find serving others to feel like business-related “work”—on the contrary, my experiences always have been intense and engrossing.

If I had to wake up for an actual “job” each day before five o’clock, having slept on a hardwood floor and listened to the unending barking of dogs, I suspect I would quickly cease and desist from such an occupation. Something about volunteer work however, be it the tangible feel of construction or health care or whatever work you are there to do, renews you, pulls you toward the experience, causes you to give completely. Never have I felt more alive than when I am doing field work as a volunteer.

I arrived at the these thoughts returning from last summer’s “blitz build” of 80-plus homes in South Korea with Habitat for Humanity’s 2001 Jimmy Carter Work Project. Judging from conversations with the other 12 Emory students who went on the trip, it was a memorable 10 days for them, as well. Of course, chaotic moments were to be expected when organizing more than 6,000 people into a cohesive build — dedicated to completing two-story, duplex homes on time and to specifications. Such is the nature of massive undertakings, however, and as soon as everyone was situated, there began a glorious symphony of buzzing saws, thundering hammers and requests for tools and water. Shared smiles and happy laughter materialized almost instantaneously and, despite the 95-degree heat, everyone became engrossed in their work.

Initially, I was diverted from working on Emory’s sponsored house to help instead with the medical support staff. I arrived to find that the JCWP’s medical area had not been organized yet and no one seemed to be taking charged. Having volunteered as an EMT with blitz builds in the past, I knew that the first days are usually the worst ones for bashed fingers, heat exhaustion and other injuries resulting from unfamiliarity with the site. Thus, trusting the other Emory students to be well situated and safe as they shingled the roof, I spent my first six hours of the day diagnosing and treating 43 heatstroke patients and two sets of broken bones. Still not recovered from jet lag and our arrival to South Korea, the work was grueling, but to my chagrin, later that week I saw the same individuals I had treated hard at work, either drywalling inside the cool shade of the houses or seated in a chair doing detailed paint work.

Personally, I find it more fun sometimes to lose yourself in another country, then attempt to find your identity at home. In 1998, halfway through my undergraduate career, I took a year-and-a-half off from Emory. This had been inspired, in part, by an Emory journalism internship in Cape Town, South Africa, where I worked with a local newspaper. The experience was a revealing one, as I slowly discovered resistance and biases in the editors regarding the publishing of articles related to the encroaching HIV/AIDS epidemic. Their constant reply was that they had decided to cut back on the number of health stories. Translation: the HIV/AIDS epidemic occurring in their own backyard either failed to sell papers or seemingly did not affect them.

Finding myself traveling against a prevailing current, I left my reporting position to attempt to talk about HIV/AIDS with the local students of Luhlaza High School in the township of Khayelitsha. Thus began a pattern of volunteering overseas in developing nations (interspersed with occasional trips home to work and replenish my funding).

After South Africa, my first Habitat for Humanity Inter-national build was with the Jimmy Carter Work Project in March 1999. Located in the Philippines, it looked to me like Woodstock, but instead of rock music there was a cacophony of construction noises. At my particular site in General Santos, about 1,000 volunteers built 50 homes in one week. We worked from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, breaking for snacks of rice and bananas (as was the local diet) and occasionally a freshly cooked tuna. Somehow, despite feeling weary and sore, there was an energetic vibe about the event that filled everyone spiritually. Again, it didn’t feel like work; it felt more like love in action.

Subsequent volunteer mission trips followed, including one with Emory’s Journeys of Reconcilation to Honduras and other Habitat blitz builds in Romania, Ghana and Nepal. Returning to Emory to finish my courses in spring 2000, I used my summer and winter breaks as excuses to slip away and volunteer for two to three weeks overseas, asking not for Christmas presents but assistance with my airfare costs.

As I volunteered at more sites, I became accustomed to the defining moments of a blitz build, particularly those of the massive annual Jimmy Carter Work Projects. Initially there is an organized mass of 5,000–10,000 strangers from all corners of the world (though mainly Westerners). Most are a little hesitant to strike up random conversations with their newfound friends. There is some chaos in getting everyone to the appropriate build sites and finding housing, but eventually everyone has a hammer in hand and shows up for that first great morning when construction begins.

Then the wonderfully warm vibe starts, first as a hum and later growing into a rhythmic pulse. Whether from the actual sound of thousands of individuals working toward a common goal—or from the joy in finding, more than 12,000 miles away from home, threads of shared humanity—people begin to smile and relate as old friends within the first few hours. The local homeowner, working alongside the visitors from abroad, usually brings local food as snacks for the volunteers, sharing laughter and stories.

Gallons of water are consumed, to the point where the taste of water becomes almost unbearable. With the exception of Nepal, it seems to me that Habitat blitz builds are always located in countries where the temperatures exceed 90 degrees and the humidity is above 85 percent. Thus, for those seeking to lose weight, I highly recommend going on two or more volunteer mission trips within a year’s period. They will drain you physically and mentally, but what they give back is something far weightier than anything tangible within this lifetime.

Those feelings were something that I think all of the 14 Emory students sent to this year’s 2001 Jimmy Carter Work Project experienceed. For all of them but myself, it was their first international Habitat for Humanity build, for some even their first actual Habitat experience. On the contrary, for me, either because I had just graduated from Emory College—or because I knew, as I plunge into the workforce, that this would be the last one I would be able to do for a while—it was intensely special as I watched the faces of the others throughout the week. I saw in them similar feelings that I knew all too well from my own Habitat builds: caution, interest, involvement, commitment, excitement and, finally, amazement.

I hope that Emory continues to support students traveling to these builds and allowing them to find, beyond the hard work, a sense of shared spiritualness and global humanness. Giving is living, and living is loving.


Back to Emory Report November 5, 2001