More than 70 Nepal-bound international volunteers find their niche on Habitat build in Thailand

Five houses have been built by volunteers who mostly come from New Zealand with the rest from Hong Kong; they chose to work in the Baan Mai Khao community following cancellation of the Carter Work Project

MANILA (Nov. 11, 2015) “Only connect…”, novelist E.M. Forster had said and that was aptly demonstrated at a recently completed volunteer build. “We have transcended language. We have become a global family,” said Hong Kong-born Cedric Tai who was on his first Habitat for Humanity build. On Nov. 6, he was among more than 70 international volunteers who celebrated the end of the five-day build on Nov. 6 in Baan Mai Khao, Thalang district, southern Thailand.

The volunteers were originally heading to Nepal for the 32nd Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project before its unprecedented cancellation due to critical factors. Sixty-four of the volunteers were from New Zealand while the remaining 10 came from Hong Kong. Another group of Nepal-bound volunteers chose to build with Habitat in Puducherry, southeastern India.

First-time Habitat volunteer, Clark Meister, said: “Nepal was a draw card. If it was not Thailand, I might not have come.” The New Zealander recalled working alongside a local worker. “He didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Thai. But we built a wall together.”

The volunteers began with digging holes for septic tanks and moving gravel and earth to fill the floor of each house before pouring concrete to lay the foundation. The next few days were spent laying concrete blocks to build the walls and installing wooden frames for windows and doors.

By the end of the first day of the build, Tara Desai, 60, was exhausted. “But I’m happy and satisfied. I’m learning a new skill,” she said, referring to mixing cement and helping to dig the hole for the septic tank. Her work as a nurse is physically demanding and her first volunteer build is a different kind of challenge. “I’m proving to my family that I could do something on my own.”

Like Tara, fellow New Zealander Graham Laws was building with Habitat for the first time. Laws, an 85-year-old gardener, kept fit by working out in the gym, swimming and playing tennis. While he was not so comfortable climbing up scaffolding, he was happy to carry pails of mortar and concrete blocks to his team-mates. “I found my niche,” he said.

For Tyler Gardiner, the youngest among the volunteers, the build was right up his alley. The 18-year-old from New Zealand, who is preparing for an apprenticeship in construction, said: “I had an amazing and enjoyable time.”

Working at a house with other volunteers from Hong Kong, Cedric Tai said he liked the small tasks such as filling in the gaps between concrete blocks with mortar. Cedric, a 25-year-old electrical engineer working in Toronto, Canada, was on the same team with his father. “It’s rare that we do things together. It’s definitely a plus.” His father David, who came from Hong Kong, felt the same way. “It’s a good time to get together with Cedric. Soon, he will have his own family.”

Other than Cedric and David Tai, there were two pairs of mothers and daughters from New Zealand working on other houses. Both Gill Burns and Marion Douglas had previously built with Habitat while their daughters Abby and Ellen respectively, were new to the experience. “It’s good working with mom; she is in her element,” said Abby Burns, 22, who graduated from university a day before she left for Thailand.”

Abby also liked working with Habitat home partner Chatree Srirat, who helped to break up the blocks into smaller pieces. “His involvement motivates the volunteers to do more.”

Chatree is a single father who lives in a rental room with his younger daughter, aged 12. Working as a driver with a hotel, he cannot afford to save after footing a monthly rent of 3,000 baht (more than US80) and living expenses. His older daughter, 26, is divorced with a seven-year-old son, and lives in another part of town. “I never had the chance to stay together with my whole family,” said Chatree. With his own house built by Habitat, “everybody comes back again. Now, this is a real family.”

Of the New Zealand volunteers who worked with him, Chatree said: “They worked hard; very good.”

Another home partner, Atidtaya Choomak, 22, also expressed her appreciation to the volunteers at the end of the build. “You have made my new home. You have made my life.”

“The volunteers are simply amazing! They have put smiles on the faces of the families. Given that we had three weeks to prepare for the build, I am very happy that Habitat Thailand could help the volunteers overcome their disappointment and experience the joy of meeting Thai families’ housing needs. The volunteers might have only worked for five days but their contributions will have an impact on the families in years to come,” said Tim Loke, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity Thailand.