Mara Wischnewski had always wanted to do something for others. She studied architecture with the goal of “making dreams come true.” For a while, she says, her goal seemed lost on the horizon—until she decided it was time to take a chance and leave her home country of Germany for one where she had never set foot. Wischnewski would volunteer with Habitat for Humanity Paraguay for 10 months, helping to make dreams come true.
It didn’t happen overnight. From the time she made the decision to take a sabbatical to the day she stepped onto the plane, five years had passed. Before becoming a volunteer, Wischnewski had been working long days to increase consumer spending on her clients’ webpages. She was far from her original motivation for studying architecture…of “making dreams come true.”
“Everything had to do with money… with how to get more money out of people. Until finally I said, ‘right, now I need a break from this.’ I needed to do something different, something for myself as well as for others,” Wischnewski explained.
She began to research the countries she could travel to, and eventually decided she would head for Latin America. Her idea was to find a volunteer opportunity where she could contribute her unique experience—in this case, architecture. Perhaps as a twist of fate, Wischnewski stumbled across Habitat for Humanity. “This is perfect for me,” she decided. She wrote to seven different countries, and Paraguay was the first to respond.
“The first person I heard back from was Azucena, from Paraguay. She said, come, you’re very welcome here. That’s why I think that Paraguay chose me in a way. All of the other offices said that they weren’t sure; that they’d have to call me back. Azucena and Claudia made everything happen without complications,” said Wischnewski.
Wischnewski’s knowledge of Paraguay included a few well-known names and famous soccer stories, but this didn’t influence her decision. It did, however, lead her to contribute her “grain of sand” to this area while she was in country.
Now, nine months later, the image that Wischnewski has of Paraguay is a country of growth. “Everything is beginning right now. They’re starting to build; the people are starting to become interested in cultural issues. I think that the country is developing faster than ever,” she said.
It is this very growth—in this construction of Paraguay—where Wischnewski provided extraordinary support. As an architect, throughout her stay in Paraguay she supervised the construction of eight Habitat houses. She also took charge of the logistics of receiving eight visiting international volunteer teams, who helped build the homes. In addition, Wischnewski helped around the office by translating Habitat for Humanity Paraguay’s website to English and her native language of German.
“One of the things that I most enjoyed about what I did in Paraguay was to organize the Global Village  area of their webpage . As I knew very little about the country before arriving, I imagine that the same happens with other volunteers. This section provides information about Paraguay for people who want to come and volunteer. I also gathered stories from volunteers who have worked here, what kind of activities they have done, etc. I think this is the best way of helping people to make their decision,” said Wischnewski.
The Habitat “feeling”
For Wischnewski, Habitat Paraguay is experiencing the same trend that she witnessed across the country—it is starting to grow. While she was there, she saw many changes in the organization, such as an increase in staff, new ideas taking shape and increased recognition of Habitat’s work among the general public. But instead of talking about the organization as a thing, Wischnewski referred to it as a feeling.
“There is a story that for me was truly ‘Habitat’. The second to last family that I built with was comprised of a mother and her six children. They lived in a room with only enough room for the beds, a shower and a toilet. It rained inside the house, and everything was in disorder. The family was very skeptical when we arrived; they didn’t seem to trust what we were going to do. We started to clean, to finish the walls, to put in a small fence, to arrange everything. The beds were set outside, beneath the mango tree, since we had to work inside the only room that they had. When we arrived on the third day, the beds were made, the room was clean, and the kids were all bathed and in clean clothes. It was then that I learned that it’s not just about providing better housing, but new hope. This is what Habitat wants to give, is hope. I believe that the mother said, to herself, ‘Now I can do this. I know there is a different future for me—an organized life.’ Her family will not only have a better life because of a new home, but something will have happened in their heart and their minds. This was huge, and for me it was part of the Habitat ‘feeling’,” said Wischnewski.
After finishing work with her last group of Global Village volunteers, Wischnewski´s parents visited her in Paraguay, which the organization took advantage of to throw her a party to celebrate her support. “Thanks, Mara! You will always be welcome.”