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Highlights from Thailand -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Highlights from Thailand

Friday, November 20, 2009

Carter Project by the numbers

The 82 houses built in Nong Kon Kru village near Chiang Mai, Thailand are 36 square meters (a little less than 400 square feet). Each house contains about 2,900 bricks and 25 bags of cement. Volunteers installed some 66,000 bricks on the first day of building and more than 80,000 on the second day. (Skilled laborers had installed the first eight rows of bricks before the Carter Project officially began.) Each snappy green roof includes 80 sheets of fiber cement roof sheets, held in place by 180 J-hooks. Inside, every house will get 15 gallons of paint. Each house costs about 23,283 baht to build—that is about $700 in U.S. dollars.

George “Bucky” Weeks Jr. talks with medical staff at the 2009 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. Habitat for Humanity/Andy Nelson


And the most important number of all: All the homes will be finished and families moved in by the 18th of December.
—Teresa K. Weaver

Medicine man on a mission

George “Bucky” Weeks remembers well the first time he volunteered for a Carter Project—it was the first one ever—in 1984 in New York City. “I filled up a van and drove up from Charlotte, North Carolina. We stayed at a YMCA,” Weeks said, freshly arrived at the Thailand build from the site in Cambodia. It was not until after the 2002 Carter build in South Africa that Weeks, then director of international medical projects at Florida Hospital, came up with a way to combine his dedication to Habitat’s mission with his professional expertise, and a tradition was born.

Since 2004, Weeks has created medical teams to staff the Carter Work Project’s first-aid tent. Dr. Jack Geeslin, an emergency physician, heard about his efforts and has been on board from the beginning. Months before the build begins, Weeks and Geeslin travel to the build site. They scope out emergency exit routes and get acquainted with local hospitals and physicians, just in case they are needed during the week.

In addition to his work with Habitat, Weeks has a larger mission of his own: dispatching U.S. medical staff to other countries. “I just have a desire to introduce people to international projects,” he said. “They help people understand that we have a lot to be thankful for and to see that a lot of things that they thought they needed, they can do without.”
—Theresa Waldrop

These are the moments

It is often the small moments of humor and humanity that make a lasting impression in the minds of homeowners, volunteers and staff. A few snapshots of the week:

  • Someone accidentally ran a car over a stack of roof tiles for one house. “We had to go begging the other houses for more tiles,” said Mary Martin of East King County, Washington.
  • Toa Green, a volunteer from Lexington, Kentucky, United States, is an American born to parents originally from Thailand. She speaks Thai, and her extended family still lives in Thailand. On having her Habitat friends from Lexington here for the build, Green said, “It’s fantastic. I’m so glad they came to my home country. It’s a neat experience to be able to translate and share the culture I know with all my friends.”
  • At the medical tent on Thursday, a volunteer was getting the backside of her pants sewn up by one of the medical team. “The medical tent is all things for all people,” said a nonplussed Dr. Jack Geeslin.
  • Aubrey Gallegos of Seattle, Washington, was building with her parents, Tom and Diane. (Diane is the chief operating officer of the South King County affiliate.) Aubrey reports that she learned three crucial terms in Thai this week: “hello,” “goodbye” and “tape measure.”

—Theresa Waldrop

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jean Smith and her mother, Jennifer Combs, work on a door frame in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Habitat for Humanity/Gregg Pachkowski


Habitat home partner Nassee ja hae (right) works with Maria Elena Cruz Aquino, daughter of late former Filipino President Corazon Aquino. Habitat for Humanity/Andy Nelson


Building on the legacy of Pat Smith

Among the volunteers in Thailand this week are Jean Smith and Jennifer Smith Combs of Lexington, Kentucky in the United States. They are the wife and daughter, respectively, of Pat Smith, a Habitat international board member and former volunteer of the year who died in a 2006 plane crash. Jean has not missed a Carter Work Project since Pat died, and she is active in Women Build back home in Lexington. “It really grows on you,” she said of Habitat. “I’ll do it as long as I’m able to get up and down the scaffolding.” Pat’s Habitat passion began during a Global Village trip to Ghana in 1997, where he returned again and again. After he retired, Pat “turned Habitat into a full-time job,” his daughter said, building houses from Kentucky to Sri Lanka and India, after the 2004 tsunami. Pat was on his way to build houses in Mississippi when he died. “I’m sure he’d be thrilled to see us continuing what he was doing,” daughter Jennifer said. “His passion was Habitat, and he certainly passed that on. There are so many people who became involved in Habitat because of him.”
—Theresa Waldrop

No rest for the weary homeowner

Future homeowner Kanchit Suthimetheesakul, a 40-year-old school bus driver, is an extreme example of the excitement many family partners are feeling as they see their new houses take shape: He has not slept in three days. “It’s true,” said his wife, Nasee, a housekeeper and nanny. “He’s too happy. He’s overflowing with happiness. We never dreamed of having our own house.” Their house is being built in honor of former Philippines President Cory Aquino, and the crew has a definite Filipino flair. As the project nears its end, Nasee has mixed emotions. “I don’t want the house to be completed yet, because I want everybody to stay longer,” she said, laughing. “When it is done, this will be everybody’s house, not just ours. We are all friends now.” Nasee has gotten special permission for their children—13-year-old daughter Suthidaphan and 12-year-old son Suthina—to miss school so they can attend closing ceremonies Friday and get the first glimpse of their new home.
—Teresa K. Weaver

Now more than ever, affiliates lend support

In this tough fundraising environment, Habitat for Humanity affiliates and national organizations have stepped up in a big way to support the Carter Project financially, providing about one-third of the funding and scores of volunteers to this year’s build. It is a win-win situation, according to Mary Martin, resource development director for Habitat of East King County, Washington, United States. That affiliate brought 20 volunteers—many of them major Habitat donors—to Thailand. “We want them to see it’s the help and strength of the affiliates that make this happen,” said Martin, who hopes the experience will lead participants to sponsor a house back home.
—Theresa Waldrop

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Jan Eliot, writer and illustrator of the comic strip “Stone Soup,” works with interlocking blocks as she helps build new Habitat homes in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Gregg Pachkowski


David Rubel, author of the middle school children’s book If I Had a Hammer: Building Homes and Hope with Habitat for Humanity, is volunteering and blogging about his experience during the project. Read Rubel’s blog. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Gregg Pachkowski


Kelli Akremi (left), the 2009 Habitat World essay contest winner, works with volunteer Diane Susoev to pour concrete. Read Akremi’s full essay. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Gregg Pachkowski

From page to construction stage

Cartoonist Jan Eliot, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, United States, followed two of her colorful ink characters to Chiang Mai, Thailand, to help build one of five Women Build houses at this year’s Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. A longtime supporter of Habitat for Humanity, she has featured the organization in her nationally syndicated comic strip “Stone Soup” several times. When her characters Val and Joan headed for Thailand, she decided to go as well, fresh off a speaking engagement in Algiers and Morocco. “I spent 10 years trying to make the comic strip grow,” Eliot said. “And I hit the point where I thought, ‘This is it. This is my success. What can I do with it?’ I’m not a rich person. I don’t have the money to just donate. So I’m glad to be able to use the strip to generate money for Habitat. Habitat is a really good fit for me.”

Eliot also has created T-shirt designs and souvenir postcards featuring Habitat. Among other notable members of the crew on House No. 52: Janet Huckabee, a member of the Habitat For Humanity international board of directors; Beth Kuenstler of CARE; and the Reverend Shannon Ledbetter of Liverpool Habitat.
—Teresa K. Weaver

Author rides the roller coaster

David Rubel wrote the book on volunteering for Habitat, but until this week, he had not helped build a house. So is it everything he expected? Rubel had done enough research and talked to enough people to know what he was getting into, he said while taking a brief break from laying blocks, but knowing what to expect and experiencing it are two different things. “It’s sort of like a roller coaster ride,” Rubel said. “You see the people on it, and you hear them screaming,” but you don’t get the whole experience until you do it yourself. Working alongside the other volunteers and the future homeowners, Rubel said he has experienced a “true partnership.” “In that environment, it’s not only easy to be giving, it’s rewarding to be giving,” he explained. Rubel’s book, If I Had a Hammer: Building Homes and Hope With Habitat for Humanity, written to inspire readers age nine and older, is a collection of stories about people who have been involved with Habitat and the difference a home has made in the lives of partner families.
—Theresa Waldrop

A prize and a presidential handshake

Kelli Akremi is in Chiang Mai this week courtesy of Habitat World, the quarterly magazine published by Habitat for Humanity International. She won this year’s essay contest—earning a free trip to a week of hard work—by capturing in words the powerful connection between home and hope. A fourth-grade teacher in Virginia, she was inspired to write the essay by a student named Edwin, who could not complete a homework assignment because the electricity in his family’s home had been disconnected. “I volunteer with Habitat for Humanity because of students like Edwin,” Akremi wrote. “No child should have to worry about doing homework in the dark. All children deserve a place to learn and discover their potential.”

Akremi has been on several international builds for Habitat, including Guatemala and Jordan. So far, she has found Thailand most agreeable. “The people are so friendly and so hopeful,” she said. “The best thing about these builds is the spirit that you feel. It’s so great to see the power of this many people gathered in one place who believe in the same thing.” One highlight came early in the trip, when Akremi was on the connecting flight from Seoul, South Korea, with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Shortly before landing in Chiang Mai, the former president took his traditional walk through the plane, shaking hands and thanking volunteers for making the journey.
—Teresa K. Weaver

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Superstars lend a hand

The stars came out early Tuesday, with giants in Asian popular culture pitching in at the Carter Work Project. “It’s great being part of the building process,” said Indian actor John Abraham, who was named a Habitat Global Hero for his support of work in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. The greatest aspect of Habitat for Humanity, Abraham said, is its revenue model, with homeowner families helping to pay for houses for future families. “I find this really special,” he said. “And I think it’s a great model for other organizations.”

Martial arts film star Jet Li uses a precision tool to smooth wet concrete between interlocking blocks in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Andy Nelson


Jet Li, a native of China who found worldwide fame in Hollywood martial arts movies, became an important member of the Habitat team Tuesday. He signed a memo of understanding outlining a partnership between Habitat for Humanity Asia Pacific and his One Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to develop a culture of volunteerism in China. “I believe government has a responsibility, corporations have a responsibility, and regular citizens have a responsibility,” Li said. “We should all help each other. Everybody can do a little bit. … Everybody has a wonderful heart. They just need to know how to help.”
—Teresa K. Weaver

A new generation of builders: “That’s hot!”

There are a lot of new faces at the Carter Project this year: About 200 volunteers—10 percent—are 25 or younger, and many are taking part in the build for the first time. Bank Patkun, a 25-year-old university student from Chiang Mai, said he is “having fun” and meeting lots of good people. “I want to help other people,” he said. “I hope to work with Habitat again.”

House Leader Mike Candan, from Elmhurst, New York, is having a blast working with Patkun and other young Thai volunteers at the Chiang Mai Youth house. “They laugh at my attempts at Thai,” Candan said, adding that he always enjoys working with the youth. “They’re always trying to learn. I love their energy. They’re willing to laugh about stuff and keep going.”

And the Thai volunteers are having their fun with Candan, too. When he asked them how to say “That’s beautiful” in Thai, one taught him the Thai version of an American phrase with a slightly different meaning: “That’s hot!”
—Theresa Waldrop

Coming back for more

Block leader Eliza Evans was only mildly surprised when all volunteers on her houses—most of them Delta Air Lines employees—came back for a second workday after Monday’s heat put a few out of commission. “They’ve been tough,” she said. “Everybody’s been working really hard; they’ve been fantastic.”

Delta volunteers at House No. 34 are building with future homeowner Wanida Sotkrang, her son and daughter-in-law. They live in a slum on a polluted, smelly canal. Wanida, who has been HIV-positive for 15 years, is looking forward to living in a safe, clean environment. She plans to move in “as soon as it’s finished” and said she’s impressed with the volunteers’ attention to detail.

Smita Premkumar, marketing general manager for Delta, one of the Carter project’s two biggest sponsors, is crew leader on Wanida’s house. She’s back for more after two “life-changing” international Habitat builds. “I love the way we can have an impact and change people’s lives.”
—Theresa Waldrop

Monday, November 16, 2009

When style gets to work

A Habitat construction site is not usually the most fashionable place, but House No. 15 is being built by a particularly stylish Women Build crew from New Zealand. Almost all the crew members are in the fashion industry, including well-known designer Trelise Cooper. All arrived at the build site Monday morning dressed to kill. “I don’t wear T-shirts,” Cooper said, laughing. “So I had to make do.”

New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper strikes a happy pose as she handles interlocking blocks while working at a Women’s Build House in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Andy Nelson


She sported black pants, a bright purple shirt and a multi-colored overshirt. Cooper, who is nearly as famous for her philanthropic efforts as her business acumen, brought nine of her staff members to the build, and assorted other fashionistas also signed on to build this year. “We’re all really bossy, so there are lots of people in charge,” Cooper said. “I like the energy that women bring to the building. We all have such a spirit of ‘We can do it!’”

The only man working on House 15 is the homeowner, Suk Gongkanchananon, who seemed to be holding his own early Monday. He bowed deeply when he was introduced to the crew. “This is his house,” the house leader said, prompting a round of applause from the best-dressed construction workers in Thailand.

Thank you, Mr. President

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were on the build site bright and early Monday, as unfazed by the cameras as ever as they set about putting bricks in place and applying mortar. At mid-morning, the president took a break long enough to field a few questions from members of the Asian press, who turned out in force to cover the build. In brief opening remarks, Carter reminisced about past builds and talked about the meaning of a simple, decent house in the life of a family. “It doesn’t matter how large a house is,” he said. “What matters is the love that goes into it, and then later, the love that comes out of it.”

A few snippets from the Q&A:

  • Why does he devote so much of his time to Habitat?
    “It’s the best way I know to put my religious faith into practice.”
  • What is the ripple effect of building houses for people in need?
    “Quite often, when the local people see what’s possible, they’re quite eager to continue the initiative. That has been the case everywhere we’ve built houses.”
  • What would he like to say to volunteers at this year’s project: “Thank you for coming. Now go to work!”

—Teresa K. Weaver

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Florida tradition comes to Thailand

Will pink flamingos perch in the front yards of Thailand? If a group of volunteers from Broward County, Florida, United States, has its way, this tradition will be established here in the new community of Habitat homeowners this week. Since the 2002 Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project in Durban, South Africa, the folks from the Broward County Habitat affiliate have handed over plastic pink flamingos, signed by the volunteers, to the families they build with during the week. Partner families are asked to put the birds up in their yards only once a year, on the anniversary of the build. Earlier this year, Russ Cubbin, the affiliate’s construction manager, and Rob Collett began researching whether the faux fowl could be bought here; they could not. And so, 14 birds—made in China—were shipped from a merchant in Indiana to Chiang Mai. “They racked up a lot of frequent-flier miles,” Cubbin said, laughing. He and Collett came up with the idea to use flamingos as the affiliate’s signature back in 2001. “These could be the very first pink flamingos ever in Thailand,” Collett said, with the enthusiasm of a true Floridian.

Clear, with a chance of building

Habitat staff worked for months to pull together an outdoor extravaganza of light, sound and movement for the opening ceremony of the 26th Carter project. Nobody predicted the downpour at 4:44 p.m. that drenched carefully staged dinner tables and sent market vendors scurrying for cover. Most of the 2,000 volunteers on hand, though, were undaunted. “It’s liquid sunshine,” longtime volunteer Lloyd Troyer said. Within minutes, the sun was shining again. The forecast for Monday, the first day of the build: sunny with a high of 91 degrees Fahrenheit (33 Celsius).

Arts and crafts of a nation

Volunteers saw a typical Chiang Mai sight when entering the grounds where the opening ceremony was held: an open-air market offering a rich array of local handmade goods, from scarves made of Thailand’s famous silk to elaborately painted lacquered boxes and intricately sewn cloth bags. The arts and crafts of the people who live in the hills surrounding the city make Chiang Mai, the heart of northern Thailand and former capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom, a shopper’s paradise. While some volunteers admired the delicate, brightly colored umbrellas and bamboo mats, others were in awe of the people who made them. “The people here are so generous and kind,” said Mica DeAngelas, a volunteer from Burlington, Vermont, United States, who is at her third Carter project. “They don’t seem to have a lot of angst.”
—Theresa Waldrop