A roof above their heads and a place in their hearts

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Everyone gets more than they bargained for as volunteers from several countries contribute sweat and money to build houses for needy families in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang 

 Foreign volunteers on the construction site of 25 houses for needy families in the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang, under the Mekong Big Builds 2013 project earlier this month /PHOTO COURTESY OF THI BAY MIRADOLI 

At 63, Nguyen Van Kheo has two major concerns: his health and his house.

He says enteritis, muscle pains and other illnesses have forced him to undergo several surgeries, and made ­him dependant on medicines and acupuncture. They make him feel "weak," says the man, who is virtually on his own with no children and his wife living away.

Meanwhile, the  small house that he got from his mother some 20 years ago in Tien Giang Province's Cho Gao District has worn him out with its continuous needs for repairs, he says. Intended as a temporary shelter, the house has seen its wooden poles and beams begin to rot, and it leaks during the rainy season.

With an income of just about US$30 a month, he can only afford cheap and non-durable materials for necessary repairs that he does by himself.

So, over the years, he has been stuck in an endless cycle of housing improvements that just barely keeps a roof above his head.

If he had a new house, he would feel much relieved and would be able to focus on taking better care of his health problems, Kheo tells anyone who cares to listen.

Someone did listen. And they did something about it.

Last week, nearly 250 foreign and Vietnamese volunteers descended on Cho Gao District to build new houses for Kheo and 24 other poor families in Cho Gao District, under the project Mekong Big Builds 2013 initiated by Habitat for Humanity Vietnam, an international NGO.

The volunteers included 190 people from eight countries Australia, Cambodia, China, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the US. Aged 16-81, they came from different backgrounds. They were students, lawyers, teachers, singers, actors, engineers, retirees and even cancer survivors.

They arrived in Tien Giang Province's capital town of My Tho, which is 10 kilometers from Cho Gao District, on Sunday (August 4). And, the very next day, they started working together with local volunteers and families. On Friday noon, they handed over 25 houses to local house owners.

Kelly Koch, country director of Habitat for Humanity Vietnam, said the rush to build and repair houses in four and a half days was because volunteers had to cover all the costs of their stay in Vietnam, and a longer period of time would be very expensive for them.

Not only did they pay for the accommodation, air fares and other costs, the volunteers contributed $1,500-2,000 each to the project's fund as well.

Koch said funds also came from Habitat affiliated offices around the world, bilateral funding agencies, various corporate donors, local government, and home partners who could contribute money, materials or labor. 

In an interview with Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper she said although the building was done at high speed, each house with an average area of 40 square meters met Vietnamese technical standards as well as those set by her organization's volunteers who are experts in construction.

The whole process, from identifying building areas, constructing foundations, to applying concrete, was closely watched by members of a technical management team, she added.

Nearly 250 volunteers, including staff members of the organization, were divided into specialized teams. One managed technical standards, another team the logistics, and yet another took care of processing concrete. Then, at each house, a "house leader" was chosen from some ten volunteers, and there was a paper on its wall outlining the plan in detail.

Every day, they started working at 8:30 a.m., spent around 10 minutes assigning jobs, and would not stop until they had completed all the jobs listed for that day.

Koch said all the volunteers believed in and were dedicated to what they were doing.

They had joined the project at their expense, and worked until they were bathed in sweat, and did not let inconvenient weather conditions caused by the rainy season put them off the task at hand.

Paul Foster, a Singaporean singer, actor and model, did not rest for an instant. He transported sand, rocks, water, and cement in a push cart. Whenever he had nothing to transport, he carried scaffolding material or found something else that needed to be done on the construction site.

Another volunteer, despite falling sick, refused to be hospitalized and insisted on staying to complete the job.

The oldest volunteer, Ngatuakana Wichman, an 81-year-old woman from New Zealand, amazed many people, painting a house by herself, arranging and preparing scaffolding, or mixing and applying concrete.

Koch said it was the fourth build for Wichman, and that she was planning to join one in Nepal.

But, even more "amazing" was the relationship among people who joined the project, from foreign volunteers to local families, she said.

Koch said despite differences in culture, profession, social status, and language, "everyone on site bonded" and worked together for a common goal.

In one blog entry, a volunteer wrote that strong connections between volunteers and local families were expressed in simple acts like the sharing of local fruit and the effort made by residents to practice saying "hi" and "goodbye" to their benefactors. 

"It was heart-warming to be accepted into their neighborhood as friends as the week progressed," it read. "The team felt we were leaving a piece of our hearts behind as a cornerstone of the families' new homes."

Giving and getting

Dinh Thuy Loan, whose family benefited from the Habitat project, said after living in a dark and leaky house for many years, her family feels "blessed."

She said they finally had a place safe enough to shelter their six-year-old son from rain and shine, giving him a healthy environment to grow up.

Koch told Tuoi Tre she was touched when Foster told her that although he was tired, he could imagine how a family with parents and children would be able to live and play inside their new house.

Sweat, tears and blood (injuries at the construction site) was shed, but everything was still great, he said.

Foster also said that every volunteer knew that locals would thank them when the houses were completed, but from the bottom of the volunteers' heart, they too felt grateful to house owners for giving them such wonderful experiences.

That is the lot of volunteers they give but also receive a lot, Koch said.

"We are not trying to convey any specific message. This is the work we do. We build houses, and if we can succeed in bringing communities together to do it, we feel we give people more than the walls within which they can live."

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