It's Not Just the Destination
Global Village trips offer volunteers a new point of view.By Phillip Jordan
Miriam Kotahalian McFadden knows what it’s like to yearn for home.
She spent her childhood in northwestern Iran, raised by her mother, an Armenian refugee. McFadden left Iran and moved to the United States at 21. She married an American and became a successful real estate agent in Utah.
In 2009, at age 71, McFadden still felt the need to return to her roots.“I wanted to go back to Armenia, but not as a tourist,” McFadden says. “I wanted to get to know people there, see what their lives are like now — and maybe make a bit of a difference.”
She had heard of Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program through a friend who had participated in several of the short-term international volunteer trips. McFadden joined a team going to Nshavan, Armenia, where she and her teammates spent two weeks helping a grandmother in need refurbish her own home.
“It was the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I have ever done in my life,” McFadden says. “It was unbelievable not only to be in my homeland, but also to be able to learn and to help. And to do it with such a diverse group of people from all over the U.S., from the Ukraine, from Armenia — it was the most enriching experience I could imagine.”
Sheila Crowley, a global engagement officer for Habitat for Humanity International, says Global Village succeeds exactly because of how it brings people together.
“When you work alongside people of a different culture and spend time with them, you realize that we all have the same basic hopes, wants, dreams and needs,” Crowley says. “What Global Village does is help people in the developed world and the developing world learn that they really aren’t all that different from each other.”
What is the Global Village program?
Global Village builds are one- or two-week service trips scheduled year-round to dozens of countries where Habitat works, including destinations within the United States. The trips are designed so that the Habitat national programs hosting these teams receive funding and volunteer labor — and, just as important, so that volunteers can learn first-hand how Habitat operates around the world.
In addition to building or rehabilitating houses, team members engage in the local community and participate in cultural opportunities. Each participant is asked to fundraise for the trip to cover their costs and to donate money to the host program’s work.
In 1989, Global Village’s first year of operation, a dozen countries invited 30 volunteer teams from the United States, Canada and Japan to participate. Over the past two decades, more than 6,000 teams totaling more than 75,000 volunteers have raised more than $25 million for Habitat’s work. Today, there are at least 16 countries that regularly send Global Village teams, including New Zealand, Germany, South Korea and Northern Ireland.
Choosing to serve
Global Village volunteers come from all types of backgrounds. Architecture student Dylan Pope, of Cape Town, South Africa, joined a team of 14 Americans and Canadians to serve in Chile on his first Global Village trip.
“There are certainly many infrastructure needs here, and there is an especially big need for improved housing in the less fortunate communities of South Africa,” the 22-year-old says. “I intend to stay in South Africa and focus on helping communities here. I wanted to go on a Global Village trip to gain experience and motivation that will help me do that.”
Thomas and Elizabeth Braun, of Ludwigshafen, Germany, have volunteered with Habitat while living in the United States, Mexico and Germany and have led Global Village teams to countries on four continents. The German-born Thomas and U.S.-born Elizabeth keep planning builds because they never tire of the perspective it gives them.
“Being a leader, you decide where to go and at first it always seems about you,” Elizabeth says. “In the planning stage, you don’t know the families. But then you get there and you meet them and you work with them and you learn their stories. It always touches you. And what the trip is all about changes so quickly.”
Volunteers understand that the Global Village program doesn’t exist simply to provide travel opportunities. It exists so that Habitat can support its global mission to provide hope and homes for more families. Volunteers must be flexible with fluctuating schedules, strange culinary creations, and local customs that may vary quite a lot from what they are used to back home. But that’s what makes the program so unique.
David Minich, Habitat’s director of volunteer engagement, has been involved with the Global Village program for 18 years. He says that while people frequently know of Habitat’s work in their own community, they often don’t realize the need elsewhere.
“Going on a Global Village trip opens up people’s eyes to the fact that Habitat is an international movement,” Minich says. “It changes your perception and makes you look at the world from someone else’s point of view.”
Countries that host Global Village teams value the opportunity to provide that new perspective. “The utmost importance to us is that there is interaction between the family partner and the volunteers who believe in what Habitat does,” says Irina Vanyan, executive director of Habitat Armenia’s program. “Volunteers are very important assets to spread out to the world the mission and the activities of Habitat Armenia.”
A lasting impact
It’s easy to see the tangible benefits of Global Village trips. A roof rebuilt. The foundation laid for a family’s first home. Smiles on the faces of neighborhood children who always seem to flock to Global Village work sites.
But there are enduring intangibles, too.
In Romania, for example, the 3,000 Global Village participants who have worked there over the past 13 years have helped reshape the country’s opinion on volunteering. “Here, there is a lingering negative perception of volunteerism,” says Jeremy North, Habitat Romania’s volunteer program manager. “Romanians were required to ‘volunteer’ [on state-sponsored projects] during communism, and it’s the enthusiasm of Global Village members that is helping to break down that perception.”
Ruben Soberano, a former Habitat Mozambique project officer, also witnessed the effect Global Village volunteers can have on communities. A couple of years ago, one local Habitat Mozambique affiliate was having difficulty recruiting families that were willing to live on newly acquired land. The families were reluctant to move to land they had never lived on before, land that had been acquired by others. A Global Village team’s efforts helped build trust in the community. Soon, seven families made deposits for homes of their own and seven other families began saving money so that they could apply in the future.
“That Global Village team gave a sense of hope to an affiliate that had been in a state of cynicism,” Soberano says. “These experiences have a great impact on communities because they wake communities up and make them aware of the fact that we all deserve basic human rights and we can indeed combat poverty.”
Feeling the pull
Sam Emerick, one of Habitat for Humanity’s first board members, once described how he felt when listening to Clarence Jordan explain his concept for partnership housing. It was Jordan’s concept that would form the foundation of Habitat’s ministry.
Emerick said: “It grabbed me by the shirt. I couldn’t ignore it. I literally felt as if someone had gotten a hold of me by the shirt and wouldn’t let go.”
If that’s the power of Habitat, maybe the power of the Global Village program is that, once you’ve experienced Habitat’s work first-hand in a new setting, it makes you want to grab somebody else’s shirt and get them involved.
Miriam Kotahalian McFadden is doing just that back in Utah. She organized a meeting this fall so she could share her experience with members of Salt Lake City’s small Armenian community.
“I’m going to try my best to get a group of volunteers from here to go to Armenia on another Habitat project next year,” McFadden says. “I’m letting them know this is an experience that nobody should miss.”
“They’ll understand it when they go.”
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Phillip Jordan is a writer/editor for Habitat for Humanity International.
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