In the Fall 2014 term, I joined the Habitat for Humanity club at my school. Because of time conflicts between my classes and the local builds, I could never participate in one. So you can imagine my excitement when I found out I was selected to go to Florida with the club during our reading week.
Having never been on a volunteer trip before, I didn’t know what to expect, but I guarantee you the trip exceeded any expectations I could have had. Not knowing what to expect also meant that prior to departure I was mostly looking forward to leaving winter behind for a few days and soaking up the sun as much as possible. And while visiting new places was a big part of the trip, seeing life from a different perspective was a bigger part.
On Friday, February 13th our group left the school and headed down to Florida on a bus. At the time, I knew very few people on the trip, but was happy to be going with one of my best friends, Tima. The ride down took a bit over 26 hours and during that time we played games, got to know each other, watched movies and tried to get some sleep. We drove through four states and stopped every once in a while so our drivers could rotate. During some of these stops we got out to get some food and by the time we made it to Dade City, I told myself I would never eat junk food again. Yeah… okay. After being in a bus for so long, I was really tired, so the rest of the night is a bit of a blur.
Because our volunteer work didn’t start for another day, we wanted to have some fun. So we went kayaking at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Tima and I got in a kayak together and it was quite the adventure. Neither of us are pro kayakers and we got stuck under trees way to many times to keep track. The important thing is that we never tipped our boat. The river was very long and passed through some cottages. Some of them had signs that said “Beware Crocodile” but I am pretty sure people just put them there to scare tourists because I didn’t see any crocodiles. I did, however, see a couple of manatees. At first I thought they were rocks, but then I noticed one swimming right under my boat. I’m glad I got to see Florida’s animal while there.
By the time I woke up Monday morning, my arms were very sore from kayaking the previous day but I felt well-rested and was excited to find out what this trip was all about. We got on the bus and drove out to where we would meet the volunteers of the East and Central Pasco County Habitat chapter. To my surprise, we were also joined by a large group of adults who had come from all over the place to volunteer like us. One of them had come from Canada and gave a few of us Tim Horton’s coffee. After we were split into four different groups, we got together in a circle for a quick story followed prayer. This happened every day that we got together and we always ended it by saying “Habitat is not a hand out, but a hand up” while raising our hands in the air. I may not be an extremely religious person, but I looked forward to this every morning.
For the first couple of days, two of the groups, including mine, were sent to work at a house in Zephyrhills while the other groups were sent to the local Restore. There was not much to be done in terms of construction work, so we were given the task of painting the outside concrete bases and some garden cleanup. To me, it did not feel like that much work at all, but we were told that without our help it would have taken them much longer to complete these tasks. It was very rewarding to hear how much we had helped and to see the difference two days of work made. Our group’s hard work paid off.
During those first two days, we were told about the Clanton family, for whom this house was being built. After hearing their story, I could not think of a family more deserving of this house than the Clanton’s. They are a family of seven, with two parents and five kids. Three of the kids are adopted and three have some disability. This house in Zephirhills was built specifically to suit the needs of this family and allow them to live without any struggle, unlike the home they lived in at the time the house was built. We also had the pleasure of meeting some of the members of this family, who told us a bit about themselves and thanked us for our help. In turn, we thanked them for letting us help.
On our third day, we were reassigned locations. The groups who were at Zephyrhills, were sent to two separate Restores to help with the sorting of clothes, toys, furniture and whatever else they needed done. I started with the clothes, which were being sold at $1 each. Once those were all done, I moved on to sorting this huge pile of toys that had just arrived. It was incredibly fun to rearrange them and I even found a few that I had when I was little. During our lunch break we went outside to the parking lot to enjoy the sun and chat. We finally went inside to finish our work and then headed home to hear about everybody else’s day. The other two groups were sent to Lacoochee to work on a few Habitat houses that had been built a few years back and then abandoned. Though at first we thought our last day would also be spent at the Restore, all of us were sent to Lacoochee together. Because the houses had been abandoned, a lot of the windows and doors had to be replaced and walls had to be repainted. At the same time, decks began to be built, so a few of us got the opportunity to be involved in construction work.
Our day in Lacoochee was eye opening. From it’s very beginning, the town was marked by hardship. The main source of income was a factory located down the road from where we work. In order to save money on employees, the factory hired immigrants to work for them at very low costs. Consequently, immigrant families were placed together in small houses and lived in very poor conditions. Though the factory is long gone and the situation has improved drastically, in some parts of town you can still see this hardship. Halfway through our day, we were taken on a tour and shown some of the houses Habitat built in the area and that were already occupied by families. We were also shown houses of very poor families.
Being born in Brazil, I grew up knowing how bad poverty can be. After all, the number of favelas in Rio is quite alarming. But this did not make me immune to what I saw that day. I knew poverty could be found anywhere, but it was especially shocking to see it in Florida, a state located in one of the richest countries in the world. One of the houses that we saw looked like a chicken coop. Its outside was covered in what looked like things collected from garbage. Though we did not go on the inside, it looked like no more than a couple of pieces of furniture were in there. Apparently, this is what a family of three calls home. We were later told that house has dirt floors, which happens to be the case for many other houses in the area.It made me really sad to think about the people who live in these conditions. It also made me really appreciative of everything that I have. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to participate in this trip, learn a lot of new things and meet a lot of new people.
The houses we stayed in during the week were built by Habitat, so we were surrounded by families who have received help from the organization. However, we only got to interact with one of the families. They lived right next to us and were kind enough to unblock their internet so we could use it during the week. A few of us had the opportunity to go to the park with the son and play games with him. Personally, I think he had a great time hanging out with kids his age and we had a lot of fun hanging out with him. Later that same night, both him and his mother came over to tell our group the impact Habitat had on their lives and their story had an impact on mine. They lived in a trailer wrapped in saran wrap because it had no walls, they shared their cupboards with mice, they bounced from place to place, they lived through a lot a single mother and her child should never go through but unfortunately do. The son was young at the time and unlike many kids his age, him and his mother drove numerous miles to go to school every day and he never had friends over. They told us that the water from their tap was so disgusting that a friend of the son used it for his science experiment. From that, they discovered all sorts of bacteria living in that caused rashes among other things. They read us the letter they wrote when applying for a Habitat home and cried as they read it. They thanked us for our hard work and we thanked them for sharing their story with us. I’m happy to say that now they own a home, his school is nearby, their water is safe to bathe in and drink and they are living a much better life.
I think that most people see Habitat as an organization that gives houses for those in need, but that’s not exactly true. In fact, these houses are given to families in exchange for several hours of hard work either at a build site or at a restore. In many cases, the plots of lands and construction materials are either donated or purchased at an incredibly low price. And the labour force is voluntary, made up of groups like ours. For this reason, Habitat truly is a hand up, not a hand out. During this trip, I learned what Habitat is truly about and I fell in love with the organization.
To East and Central Pasco County, thank you for the opportunity to help and teaching me about the organization.
To my Habitat Execs, thank you for running this club, planning this trip and letting me join.
To my Habby fam, you are all amazing, don’t ever change! (Especially you, Karen)