What did you REALLY do for Habitat? Gliwice, Poland.

8 Sep

I’ve gotten some emails – mostly questions from my sister – about what did I actually DO for habitat.  Was crack filling a joke?  Did I really use a pick-ax?  Who told you what to do? And, did I wear lipstick and gain weight?  So below, I hope to answer all those looming questions… especially from my sister….and mom too..

Why volunteer while you travel?

You know the cliches about volunteering — to give back, to add meaning to your life, to make a difference, etc. All of those things are true for me.  So, no need to go into detail. Box checked.

Volunteering overseas – or while you travel – adds another dimension to your in country or travel experience.  You work along side and meet the “real” people living in the country… Listening to their stories, seeing their world and experiencing their day to day life gives you a deeper respect, compassion and understanding of  – well – people.  And a DEEPER appreciation and gratitude for the country we live in… I can go super esoteric on you but will save it.

What going local does for me is reaffirms and also questions how we are all connected.  Our souls know no geographic boundaries.  No accents.  No politics.  No color.  When you get to the core of us, we are all the same.  Yearning for the same basic needs and wants.   To feel safe.  Feel full. Be clothed. Feel joyful. And, just smile… You see this when you volunteer.  At least, I see this.  And they — the country, the people, and their smiles — leave an imprint on your life — forever.

Why Habitat for Humanity?

Habitat found me.  When I asked the Big Man upstairs what’s in store for this gig around the world, volunteering popped to the top.  The question was when, where, who, who, what…we got the why covered.

There’s a Habitat project – or build – up the street from my parent’s house.  I drove by it – never saw it – until I started planning this trip.

Then, there it was.  I finally went online to check it out and BAM…there it was… they have a Global Village program where they build homes for the destitute and working poor  all around the world.We’re talking Mongolia… Vietnam…Nepal… Poland…  BINGO.

Plus is a legit organization.  If the French decided to invade Poland, I had utmost confidence Habitat could get me out, safe and sound.

Cost is minimal — all things considering – and part of it goes to helping buy supplies, equipment and sand.  You should check it out – http://www.habitat.org/cd/gv/schedule.aspx

Why Poland?  Isn’t that random?

Poland was perfect.  Timing was perfect.  Location was perfect.  Everything was perfect.  When I inquired about space, there was one left — for me!

Not happy with that answer.  Fine.  It also had to do with timing.  I kicked started with the big islands – England, Scotland and Ireland – in July.  Leaped over the Lebanon in August and did a jaunt in Jordan and Israel.  The next big date was September 10th – St. Petersburg – where I’m to jump on the Trans Siberian Train to China.  I had a few weeks “to figure it out.”  When I perused the schedule, I saw a Poland build would fit perfectly between the Middle East and Russia.  God is good.  Plus, I wanted to make sure I OD’ed on WWII and the Holocaust before heading north to Russia.

So, who was on your team?  I mean, where were they from?  What”s their stories?

The team kicked-butt.  All different ages, sizes, shapes, backgrounds, religions – the works.  I believe there were 14 of us, including Boots and Ramsey Walker our team leaders.  The majority were women.  Majority were retired.  Majority have done a build before.  There were two married couples – including Boots & Ramsey – and the rest either left their significant others at home, were related or were poisoned.

We had a brother sister team — where the brother is at university and the sister graduated and was coerced to come and make sure little brother behaved himself.  We had a 10 month from 20 year old punk gal – my roomie! – whose taking the semester off and enjoys playing in the marching band, Japanese cartoons and CPR.

The most inspiring was our 85 year old who walked faster, carried more bricks and scrapped more plaster off of floors – more so than anyone of us.  Never been married.  Retired doctor – internist.  Lives in Chicago area.  Plays tennis.  And, rocks!

I remember one day — one of the first weeks — we were walking back to Zero star hotel.  I asked her how’s she doing…”I mean, do you ache?  Are you sore?  How’s your joints?”  Her response, “I’m just tired.”  My word.  I ache.  I’m sore.  My joints bite.  I’m pushing the IB profin, and she’s just tired.  Damn, I want what she has…  Truly remarkable.

Majority on this build were from the states and a few from Canada.  I believe other build projects attract people from all over the world.  Not Poland.

Did you choose your roomie?

No, Boots assigned us prior. I believe it was done by age and not interest. At least, I hope.

What did you wear?

First week.  I tried to do the “looking cute” thing by trading off with two pairs of pants and a different t-shirt each day.  Yes, I packed five t-shirts, don’t tell.

Week two.  I wore the same blue pants, socks, and brown long sleeve T with an undershirt every single day.  I repeat mom, EVERY SINGLE day.  I washed the undies at night.

Lipstick was banned from the work site.

What did you build?  I mean, what was the project?


Habitat Poland in Gliwice is in its final stages of building an apartment complex for many, many families.  It started — years ago (I should know when, but don’t..).  This is the last of the apartments.  They are very nice.  I will show you some before and after pictures.  So, I was not building a house, per se, but putting the finishing touches on apartments.


What do the rooms look like?

Below are some pics of some unfinished rooms.  Check out the insulation and sky lights.  Major insulation.  Walls are THICK. This place is here to stay — I mean, in the family for 100+ years.  Built to last, baby.

What was your day like — schedule – like what did you do?

I woke early.  Showered, blew dried my hair, flat ironed it, applied my eyes and lips, applied another coat to my toes… HA!

Joke.  I rolled out of bed, reached for the same dusty, dirty clothes piled at the foot of my bed made for small people.  Brushed the teeth and headed down to inhale the Zero star breakfast.  Headed down via stairs for Zero star hotel forgot the elevator.

We did a morning devotion and then sprinted to the work site around 8:17 AM.  We arrived 10 mins later.

We were greeted by Damien in his green jumper who pointed, grunted and smiled as he gave us orders in Polish.

We sat — looked confused — and started to pick up and move rocks.  If all else fails, go to prison work.  Rock moving and plaster removing.

We worked from 9ish until noonish.  Then, it was lunch time.  I usually hit the Shell station prior because I refused to use the Toi Toi and needed my daily Coke Zero.

After lunch, it was back to moving rocks, shoveling rocks or replacing rocks.  We worked until 4:00ish, then headed back to Zero Star.  Washed.

Loaded the bus made for midgets and consumed mounds of Polish cream, lard, sugar, flour, poppyseeds and meats for dinner. Food coma set in.  We’re all in bed around 9 pm.

See foot room below. Bus must have been made is Asia..

What did you do?

Well, I became quickly known as Queen Crack Filler.  Warren, Ramsey and I were somehow responsible for the water run-off/latrine system for the last apartment complex.  I don’t recall how I got the gig, but I’m happy I did.  It was fun.  Seriously.

It took us 3 days but we dug a ditch with broken shovels.  Picked-ax cement.  Blew-torched metal.  Mixed cement by shovel.  And, seriously, built a water run off system that worked. It surprised us all — Well, it surprised me.  Damien would pop by and tell us it was 1 cm off or 5 cm off or .8 mm off — So, Warren and  I would grab the pix-ax that sorely needed some super gluing and start over again and again and again.  They called it job security.  I called frustrating.  But, by day 2 or 3, your American “I can fix everything fast and efficiently” leaves the body and you just do what you are told — no questions asked.  When it rained at the end of the week, we were doing hurkes.

What type of tools do they have there?

See picture below…Stone age.  I think they were used to carve out Petra in Jordan.

Did you use power tools?

YES!  Apparently, since I rocked as crack filling, Damien let me loose on a screw driver that cracks walls and blows up cement.  They needed to put in a door frame.  A metal door frame.  Cement was on the floor and walls.  They needed someone to drill out the cement to place the frame.  Damien picked me, TallGirl.

Good part is the first door rocked.  Bad part is the second door was a “big problem.”  I assumed — and you don’t assume anything – that he wanted the same blow out technique on door two.  Nope.  So, I cracked the cement floor and busted up the walls.  He comes back a few hours and says ”Uh, Oh.  Big Problem.”  Then spats out consonants.  I asked, “how can we make big problem go to small problem to no problem.”  He points to plaster and cement.  So, I spent the afternoon re-plastering the entire wall.  Job security, right?

Other fun things were moving dirt.  Filling in ditches.  And, taking hard plaster off the concert floors with a mini-hammer.  Oh, plastering walls was a favorite as well.  The plaster removal process was deemed “prison work” but we enjoyed becuase — it needed to be done and it was warm inside.

So, what did you accomplish?

Besides eating three solid meals a day, we built a water system, moved and rebuilt a shed (they call it a garage), prepared a road for pavers, prepped mini-gardens, plastered a few apartments, scrapped plaster off floors, moved bricks back and forth, and built a more substantial rock pile.  We did more — but all in all – we did a lot.  It felt good.  It still has a ways to go — but we moved the project forward a few inches.

Did you meet or work with any of the families?

Yes. I would like to share more about this — but not sure if I will have the time on a blog.  One family invited three of us to dinner to their 2 bedroom apartment in the city.  Sounds normal, right?  Well, try a 500+ sq foot apartment, one bathroom, six children, one single mom and a random dad who sometimes shows up.  Try six of those children are girls, ranging in age from 18 to 10.  Try scary, dangerous neighborhood and all the girls are STUNNERS.  Now, let’s go back and think about sleeping arrangements and bathroom time. Who gets first dibs on the toilet in the AM?  And, what about the poor 17 year old brother?  I’m overwhelmed even thinking about it.

We brought along a translator – thank goodness – for I had to get to the bottom of the bathroom situation.  When school starts – the oldest who is 18 – gets first dibs.  Then, it goes in order down to the 10 year old.  I believe they have an allotted amount of time.  The bathroom not only houses the toilet and sink but also the washer machine.  It’s the size of a very small closet.  I could not spy a full length mirror, but I’m confident one is lurking somewhere.

They told me about the sleeping arrangements, but I was still confused.  The brother has a girlfriend and I’m hoping he shacks up with her.  Oh, the kitchen and TV room is all the same.  The couch and coffee table were converted to a dining table for guests.  Just a FYI.

I’ll get to Dad in a minute.  Mom holds two jobs – as a nurse and caregiver.  She works nights, days and then some.  Never sleeps.  When you are brought into the Habitat family — or chosen – you are required to put in hundreds of volunteer hours to help build your apartment.  So, besides earning money, she is over at her soon to be 3 bedroom apartment plastering, moving sand and decorating.

The father has fear and loathing caked in his eyes. Not someone you would want to meet in a dark ally.  He looked drunk — though I think he’s eyes were so glassy from anger, that he always looks this way.  When he walked in the room, the girls energy level went south…fast.  Eyes darted.  One bolted up.  Tried to distract him.  You know this drill too.  He just stared at us with contempt.

Dad can’t hold a job.  His wife – or mother of his many kids – does it all.  He’s mad.  Again, not much more to say on this one. He left.  And, the vivacious, child-like energy reemerged.

We ate and ate and ate.  Our translator said after our FIRST meal — aka as supper.  Super is before dinner only an hour or so later.

“You might be feeling full, but this is not correct.”

Full.  Not correct.  Got it.  After our meats, potatoes, veggies, salads, soups, we were graced with pirogi, bread, butter and more salads.  Oh, dessert too.  The girls were all thin — and they inhaled faster than me.  That says a lot. In between meals, they reached for potato chips and anything in sight.  Her food bill must be through the roof.

The eldest daughter had just got back from Holland.  She worked in a tulip factory over the summer earning money for her family.  She told us about a Portuguese name Diego that hit on her.  She did NOT like Diego.  I told our translator that ” I speak girl” and “get it.” No need to translate this one.

One positive about the EU is that Poles and others from less economically developed countries can go and work in other EU countries.  Salaries are less in Poland so for her to work in a factory over the summer, she was able to earn four times as much as she would have if she worked at Mc Ds.  If you could see this girl — BEAUTIFUL.  I can’t imagine a US high school girl working in a tulip factory… But, this is not the US either.

Besides that experience, we worked alongside other Habitat residents and legitimate, paid Polish workers with real, live construction experience.  All good..

Did you gain weight?

OK.  There is a scale in the bathroom.  IF you think I’m stepping foot on that thing, you’re smoking a boat full of crack.  My jeans fit — though I have not washed them since July.  So, if they become tight, then I know I have a problem.

I’m going to Russia next. Calories will be all liquid sooooo acne will be cleared up and carb bloated-ness will disappear.  That’s the goal girls.

Do you want to do this again?

Most definitely!  I want go wherever Boots and Ramsey Walker – our team leaders – go.  Boots kicks-ass.  They do three trips a year.  I believe they’re going to Thailand soon…Nepal… Can’t remember.  When Boots told me the story about their experience in the Istanbul airport in route to Tajikistan, I knew in my heart I would follow her anywhere.

Her bus driver “accidentally” picked up a wrong bag at the front desk hotel in Turkey. They get to the airport.  Realize this.  Open it.  And, low and behold there was medication, an ID and a GUN.  Hello.  Let’s just say, they did not go to prison and made it to Tajikistan in one piece.  Go Girl!

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