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'Being an extension of what God wants us to do'

By Phil Kloer

Brendan Murphy talks to Krisztina Mester, who lives with her family in the home that Murphy and his GV team were making more energy efficient.

Some of the lessons learned by Biff Houldin’s Global Village team in rural Hungary this summer included:

  • Styrofoam shavings mixed with sunscreen make a particularly gritty skin coating.
  • The Hungarian toast “Egészségedre!” (“Cheers!”) is fun to say over and over.
  • You don’t have to build someone a new house to improve their housing and their quality of life.

The 14 Americans, nearly all of them visiting Hungary for the first time, worked on two homes by attaching large blocks of Styrofoam to the outside walls then plastering over them. The homes were poorly insulated, and high heating costs force the families to scrimp on heat during the winter.

“In the winter, the house gets so cold we sometimes have to close off one room that is especially drafty,” said Zsofia Vaali, a part-time religious education teacher and divorced mother of four.

A few kilometers away, the Bodor-Mester family had the same problem. Their house had been built in the 1970s when Hungary was part of the Soviet bloc and building materials were poor quality.

Habitat for Humanity Hungary decided several years ago to focus on improving the quality of existing housing for low-income families, which includes the insulation program.

“[When] I found out we were going to insulate, I was like, ‘Oh. I wanted to build something’,” said Sandy Alexander, a retired nurse from Newton, Kansas.

“But everything fell into place,” she continued. “It was still helping people who need help. By showing love, we were hopefully being an extension of what God wants us to do.”

The GV team ranged in age from 17 to 73 and bonded tightly. Not coincidentally, team leader Houldin had insisted everyone learn everyone else’s name the first night the team met.

Allie Ergang, from Chicago, poses in her hard hat and face mask that filtered the foam insulation the GV team worked with.

Although HFH Hungary staff at the work site helped with translations, language was sometimes an issue that had to be worked around. None of the GV team spoke more than a smattering of Hungarian, nor did the families speak English.

But Allie Ergang, a special education teacher from Chicago, spoke Spanish, as did Krisztina Mester, a college student in one of the families, and the bilingual work sites became trilingual.

At the end of the week, the families and workers met for a farewell party for goulash soup, singing, dancing, hugging and a few tears. 

“It’s been wonderful to have the volunteers here,” said Eniko Mester, Krisztina’s mother. “We are so grateful to you for taking your time to do this, and coming so far to help us. This is something really great that you dedicate your free time to do this. You don’t even know us, but you come and help.”

The team also met with HFH Hungary staff for briefings on the organization’s work. As National Director András Szekér told them: “Habitat for Humanity is one of America’s best exports. Only an American organization could set a goal this ambitious – to eliminate poverty housing.”

Photos and story by Phil Kloer, a Habitat for Humanity International senior writer-editor in Atlanta. Kloer and his Global Village team worked in Van, Hungary. It was Kloer’s first Global Village experience.