I believe that volunteer work is a misnomer. I have yet to
find serving others to feel like business-related workon
the contrary, my experiences always have been intense and engrossing.
If I had to wake up for an actual job each day before five
oclock, 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 summers blitz
build of 80-plus homes in South Korea with Habitat for Humanitys
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 Emorys sponsored house
to help instead with the medical support staff. I arrived to find that
the JCWPs 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
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 didnt feel like work; it felt more
like love in action.
Subsequent volunteer mission trips followed, including one with Emorys
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 5,00010,000
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 goalor from the joy in finding, more than
12,000 miles away from home, threads of shared humanitypeople 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 years 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 years 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 Collegeor
because I knew, as I plunge into the workforce, that this would be the
last one I would be able to do for a whileit 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.