Thursday, July 31, 2014

Habitat for Humanity - El Salvador

Helping others is the best way to rediscover yourself…

This past November, I participated in a Habitat for Humanity build in El Salvador with a group of people from work. When I was first approached to go on this trip, I had multiple reasons why it wasn’t a good time. I was working full-time outside the home, a mother of three, and could hardly manage my life as it was. Another time, I said, maybe in a few years when things slow down…thankfully I’m blessed with friends who won’t take no for an answer, particularly when they know it’s something that will be good for me, even more so, something that I need.

The “there will be intense manual labour” part was no fucking joke. We spent the better part of 8-hours a day hauling chop-pails full of dirt up and down a steep hill, mixing cement by hand, laying brick and swinging a pick-axe, all in 35 degree, high humidity heat. I will tell you this - by 9:00am every morning, I had sweat leaking from places that I didn’t even know could produce sweat. And in those moments when I thought, “This is too much for me. I’m not strong enough…” I would catch a glimpse of the Grandpa and the little 8-year old boy, whose house we were helping build, working beside us side-by-side all week long. It was then that I knew I had it in me. I could also hear my Dad’s voice in my head saying: “A little hard work never killed anyone.” Amen, Dad. You’ve been right about that one all along.

Photo A: Me and my El Salvador Grandpa. This man? His eyes were absolutely incredible - they held enough warmth and love to light the world on fire. When saying his goodbyes at the end of the week, he could not contain his emotions. He wept with gratitude. My heart grew three sizes that day.

This experience made me think a lot about how fortunate we are, how much we’ve been given simply by luck of the draw as to which country we’re born in. The author James Branch Cabell once wrote: “While it is well enough to leave footprints on the sands of time, it is even more important to make sure they point in a commendable direction.” I don’t want my children to feel guilty for what they have; that’s the lottery they’ve won in life. But I do want them to understand that with blessings comes great responsibility to help those who need help, or a hand up.

On this trip, I also had the opportunity to get reacquainted with a good friend of mine from a very long time ago…that friend was me. From what I remember of her, she was this happy person who grabbed life by the tail, and spun it for all it was worth. She soaked up every possible ounce of enjoyment, always found joy in being around others, took great comfort in the simple things and she swore that a sense of humour was the best way to get through just about anything. But like everyone, she took a few hits along the way, and her zest for life was somewhat diminished by the weight of obligations. Well guess what? I found her again. Yeah, baby. She’s still there. I’m still that girl who loves a little too deeply, and fights a little too fiercely for what she believes in. By getting completely lost in helping others, I found myself again.

When it came time to leave, one of the proud new homeowners told us, “I can’t believe you came here from your country to help us. You don’t know us. You don’t speak our language, yet you spend your own money and leave your families at home to build us a house. It is unbelievable.”

How is it that in our world of plenty there are still so many with nothing? And how is it that they seem much happier, more grateful and more at peace with themselves than we do? They have nothing and yet possess everything we so desperately want. I think that's their secret. Their vision isn't clouded by things that aren't important - they know that most of the stuff worth having comes from within. And instead of realizing this, we continue to sell our souls for things we already own.

The image that will forever been seared upon my heart was when the little 8-year old boy got so upset when we were leaving, he started to cry and ran to hide behind the house. My friend followed him, scooped him up and folded him into a great, big bear hug.  


It’s a powerful thing.

And something no one wants to let go of.

I don’t think I’m blessed. I know I am. I got to go on this incredible journey with these amazing people, and walked away a better person for it. It made my soul sing. I don’t know much, but I do know enough to know that life doesn’t get much better than that. The following is an inscription from the tomb of a bishop in the Westminster Abbey, which for me, sums up life beautifully. It reads as follows:

“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older and wiser I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change my country, but it too seemed immovable. As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me. But alas, they would have none of it. And now I realize as I lie on my death bed, if I had only changed myself first, then, by example, I might have changed my family. From their aspirations and encouragement I would have then been able to better my country, and who knows, I might have even changed the world.”
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