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default_corp1 -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

November 4, 2006

Building in unity

Thursday on the build site closed with some rain and strong winds, sending volunteers off the roofs and into cover. It was time to stop for the day anyway, so fortunately the weather didn’t interfere with our building schedule.

Dodging mud puddles from the night before, volunteers returned Friday—the project’s last day—with the same spirit and enthusiasm they have shown all week. There has been such a mix of people here, and that diversity has only added to the overall sense of community that we’re sharing here this week.

I worked on Houses No. 73 and 74, and on those two houses alone were Mr. and Mrs. Carter, students from all across India and other volunteers from at least six different countries. One surprise volunteer was actor Brad Pitt, whose wife Angelina Jolie is filming a movie nearby in Pune. Brad joined the building effort earlier in the week and so enjoyed the experience that he returned to build another day.

That was the case for former Miss World and Miss India Diana Hayden, as well, who had planned to build for a half-day, but after experiencing the energy of a Habitat work site, cleared her calendar for another couple of days and continued to build.

Steve Waugh, the Michael Jordan of Cricket, built this week, as well as John Abraham, who, essentially, is Brad Pitt’s Indian counterpart.

I think it’s been fun for everyone to have such high-profile people on site and working along side many of the volunteers. But there’s a much larger purpose being served by this as well. Their participation helps draw more attention to what Habitat is doing, not only in India, but all across the world. It highlights the need for adequate shelter, and this kind of publicity increases our capacity to advocate on behalf of affordable housing and the families who need it, to be a catalyst for decent houses.

The Habitat model is such an attractive one on so many levels. Inherent in it is a notion and practice of true partnership, whereby one depends on another who then depends on another and so on in order to accomplish our goals. And none of it would be possible without the resolve and participation from the homeowner partner families themselves who are part of the solution, not a problem to be solved.

They work hard on their houses. They save money, and they commit to repaying a no-profit loan. By investing so much in their own homes, they not only have the dignity and pride of building, but they also know that their monthly payments will help others attain their own dream of a decent, affordable place to live.

Fatima Bee Shah knew the same 22 years ago. I met Fatima during the opening ceremony on Sunday night. She is the first Habitat homeowner in India, and while she was building her own home in 1984 in India, President and Mrs. Carter were beginning the first Jimmy Carter Work Project a few thousand miles away in New York City.

Having lived in a safe, solid house they could afford, Fatima and her family thrived. The home itself wasn’t the only reason for their success, but it certainly played a vital role by creating stability and a firm foundation. One of her sons was present Sunday night as well and teaches school in a neighboring state.

As Mr. Carter has said so many times, however, it’s not only the homeowners who benefit from a Habitat partnership.

The beauty about Habitat is that everyone benefits. Habitat is a “perpetual motion miracle,” as screenwriter Randall Wallace has said. “Everyone who receives, gives—and everyone who gives, receives. If you want to live complacent and uninspired, stay away from Habitat; come close and it will change you, and make you part of something that changes the world.” The experience brings everyone transformation and meaning. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve volunteered for a week or a decade, the Habitat experience touches people.

The food manager at the hotel where I am staying in Lonavala is a wonderful example. His name is Arun, and he had never known of Habitat before. After hearing some of us discussing the first day, he decided to come and build the next day. Arun was so moved he returned to continue building. He shared two observations with me that I’ll remember for some time to come.

He said that you could not hire contractors to work so hard, with such attention to detail, that you can’t buy that kind of conscientiousness. It has to come from the heart.

Habitat volunteers sweat and toil for something infinitely more lasting than merely the completion of a particular job. They labor to serve, to give deeply of themselves to touch the lives of their neighbors, whether half a world or half a block away. That sense of selflessness has been evident throughout this week.

Arun said he also has taken note of the degree of equality that permeates the site this week, people working together on a first-name basis, in an honest and respectful exchange of cultures, backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, religions, genders and so on. Habitat’s is an open door that welcomes anyone and everyone into its mission of building in partnership with families. That, too, has been obvious on site this week.

Habitat house dedications can be deeply moving experiences. As I and a couple dozen volunteers helped dedicated Houses 73 and 74, this crystallized for me yet again.

One homeowner, Aziz, reached over, draped his arm over the shoulder of his new neighbor Subhash and said, “We are from different faiths and different castes, but now we are brothers!”

For me, that sums up as well as anything why we do this.