A Decent Place to Live

Habitat mission extends across the globe.

From its inception, Habitat for Humanity has pursued a vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live. In Des Moines, that has involved the construction and renovation of hundreds of homes in the past 32 years.

But the Greater Des Moines Habitat (GDM) team has extended that mission to partner with Habitat International teams across the world. This past summer, that partnership took them to Malawi, Africa.

“This was our second trip to Malawi,” says Brendalyn Shird, Director of Strategic Partnerships for GDM Habitat. “We have partnerships with three Habitat International organizations—El Salvador, Malawi, and Nepal. Every year, GDM takes a portion of our unrestricted funds and distributes them to our international partnerships. In addition to sending money, we periodically like to send teams” to take a more active role in the international work projects.

Distances and the newness of the Nepal and Malawi partnerships, which began in 2014, have meant fewer trips to these locations than to El Salvador, a partnership that began in 2004. Costs for the trips are paid by the team members themselves, which can also make it more challenging to staff teams for the Africa and Asia partnerships.

Longtime volunteer and board member Don Beal had been encouraged for years to join an international team. “I was warming up to the idea,” he jokes. “So I told Brendalyn if she could work out the details for Malawi, I’d go. The flight arrangements weren’t working out, so I didn’t think it was actually going to happen.”

But all the pieces came together, and Beal found himself part of a work crew destined to build two homes in a remote village of the southeast African country. He says the experience is something he will never forget. “The relationships you develop with the people on your team are hard to explain. You leave here strangers with people you’ve never met, and you come home with this bond that changes you.”

Shird agrees. Her excitement for these trips is part of what brought her to join the staff at the Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity. And that enthusiasm has been contagious. “The trips serve a great purpose, and that forms a bond you don’t get with a single-day work project. You get to know our international partners in a way you don’t from a report, and you get to see the real people that this work impacts.”

Shird says the depth of people’s understanding and commitment to the Habitat mission grows exponentially during the international projects. “Team members realize how important housing is to a person’s well-being and development. We’ve had people come back from these trips and go on to become regular donors or volunteers or even board members.”

Beal agrees. “This trip was one of the most unique things that’s happened to me in my life. It’s not a vacation. You’re working the whole time. But it changes you.”

This summer’s trip involved the construction of two simple homes in a rural village where the average home is made of mud brick that basically “melts” during the rainy season. Homes have thatched roofs, hard-packed dirt floors, and no mechanicals.

“We went to Malawi thinking we were going to build one home,” Beal explains. “But when we got there, we found out the Malawi Habitat team had slated us for two homes and had the materials all ready to go.”

In the course of one week, the 10-member team laid the bricks to construct the walls for both homes. Shortly after the team returned to the U.S., local Habitat crews completed the structures.

“Each of the homes had two small bedrooms and a common room,” Shird says. “And the Malawi team had already completed latrines for each home before we arrived.”

Much like in the U.S., recipients are chosen based on need. Habitat for Humanity Malawi works closely with the village elders to choose those families. For this summer’s projects, one home will go to a grandmother raising her three grandchildren and a baby she rescued from the side of the road. The other home will be for a mother and her three children and extended family—nine individuals in all.

“The contrast between the rural villages and the city where we stayed was dramatic,” Shird says.

“Our hotel was very nice. You wouldn’t know you were on a different continent. But as you drove out of the city, the rural villages were so remote. There weren’t even electrical lines along the roads. The homes had no mechanicals, electric, HVAC, or plumbing,” Beal says.

Despite the basic level of housing and the limited resources, the team says the members received a generous welcome and eager participation from the Malawi people. “The day we arrived in the village, the women welcomed us with song,” says Shird. “We thought that was just a traditional welcome song, but we found out later they had written it specifically for us. That’s the kind of hospitality we saw every day.”

Standards for Habitat projects differ from country to country to accommodate local laws and living conditions. The organization’s Global Village division works with U.S. affiliates to budget, plan, and prepare for international projects like this one. The Global Village personnel provide current details on the areas where work is most needed, as well as countries that are most secure for foreign volunteers.

“We have a committee made up of board members, staff, and community members to help us select where we’re going to work. They help with outreach locally to recruit volunteers for the trips,” explains Shird. “We made four trips this past fiscal year, which is unusual. A typical year involves two trips, most often to El Salvador.”

In November, a team will be headed to Nepal. A second group will make a trip to El Salvador in January. “With some of these trips, we’re continuing projects we’ve worked on in the past. But each one also sets the stage for local volunteers and future groups coming from the U.S. and around the world to continue the work,” says Shird.

Under most circumstances, building walls would be a hindrance to global understanding. But for the Habitat team that worked in Malawi, those walls were more like a bridge, connecting Habitat volunteers from opposite sides of the globe, reaching from one culture to another, and uniting all of them in a common vision: a decent home for everyone.