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The real celebrities -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The real celebrities

By Hiew Peng Wong

While many a young heart was fluttering at the thought of seeing Hong Kong celebrity volunteer Daniel Wu in person, construction manager David Connolly gave an apt reminder of the significance of the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

California-born Chinese film star Daniel Wu, whose parents are from Shanghai, volunteers at the 2009 Carter Work Project build site in China. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Steffan Hacker


A team from three countries takes a break for a team photo at the 2009 Carter Work Project in China. Front row (from left): Jennifer Rizk, Peter Lee, Nancy Lee, Diane Lee, Gail Lee and Felix Chan. Back row (from left): Matilda Young, Janice Lee, Bob All and Barry Rizk. Photo by Habitat for Humanity/Steffan Hacker


The volunteers were busy passing bricks, wheeling barrows of cement or laying bricks when a booming voice called for a temporary work stop.

After the volunteers gathered around, Connolly said: “This week, we’ll have an ex-president and actors and actresses coming to Qionglai, but none are as important as our home partner families.”

Loud cheers and claps accompanied his announcement as three representatives of families who would be renting the low-cost housing units were introduced to the volunteers. One of the representatives expressed his thanks by saying “xing ku le” (literally “working hard,” a typical Chinese way of showing appreciation). Heartened by his words, volunteers resumed work with a lighter step.

Nevertheless, at the build site, it was easy to train the eyes on Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu as he worked with other celebrities, such as model and veejay Lisa S. and actors Andrew Lin and Ken Wong. The amiable Wu was not averse to signing some hard hats before starting to lay bricks.

Over at a less conspicuous corner, a team of 10 volunteers kept going at their tasks.

When asked by her teammates to tea, Janice Lee could be heard muttering “one more brick.” The team was composed of husband and wife Barry and Jennifer Rizk, the team leaders, and members Peter and Nancy Lee; Gail Lee and her sisters Diane and Janice; Matilda Young; Bob All of New Zealand; and Felix Chan of Hong Kong. The Rizks are from Colorado Springs, Colorado, while all the Lees and Young hail from the San Francisco Bay area in the United States.

Thirty-three-year-old Jennifer Rizk had the distinction of being the youngest in the team. Three members of the team are 69.

“Piece of cake,” Peter Lee, one of the 69-year-olds, said after stacking his umpteenth brick on a pile in preparation for building walls.

“We are really crankin’ it,” said crew leader Barry Rizk, who was pleased with the progress.

On average, the team made its way through one wheelbarrow of cement every 15 to 20 minutes.

“That’s a lot of cement, but it helps the bricks to stick better,” said Rizk, a policeman who is on his third Carter project. He volunteered for the Carter Work Project in Georgia in 2003 and in Michigan in 2005.

As the day drew to a close, the Rizk team started cleaning up the work area before heading back to their hotel.

“We finally got it,” said Matilda Young, an energetic 69-year-old. “The first day was challenging but fulfilling.”

“Yesterday, if you had asked me if I wanted to come back, I wasn’t so sure…” said Nancy Lee, but her satisfied smile hinted that she had no more doubts.

The team gave credit to the local skilled masons, who despite the language barrier, communicated their instructions and answered volunteers’ questions through Nancy, Peter or Matilda, who speak Putonghua or Mandarin.

To any volunteers on the team who might still have had reservations about their effort, the masons responded in a universal language: a thumbs up.

Hiew Peng Wong is an editor/writer for Habitat for Humanity International Asia Pacific.