HABITAT FOR HUMANITY: A Volunteer Vacation in Nepal

Three friends travel Hand in Hand to help build homes for women living below the poverty line in Nepal.

Liz, Amelia & Tina in Nepal

In March 2011, three friends and colleagues joined hands and headed to Nepal as volunteers for Habitat for Humanity’s Hand In Hand project to build ten houses in the Itahari region of the country to help provide safe and secure futures for Nepalese women and their families. Tina Nelson, Amelia Cheever and Liz Nicholson are all hard-working young women living in Sydney with successful careers in sales and project management in the commercial interiors industry. Wandermelon recently sat down with the adventurous and inspiring trio to find out more about their incredible journey and how it came to pass.

How did you come to take part in this adventure?
Tina: Since learning about Habitat for Humanity a few years ago, I have wanted to go on one of the global village builds. When the opportunity to join the Hand in Hand build was offered up at a NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) function in October last year, I jumped at the chance. I was really excited and inspired to travel with a group of women to a country I had not been to before, to experience a new culture, and to contribute to improving the lives of women and their families in a very real and tangible way.

Amelia: After traveling through other parts of South East Asia and developing parts of South America, I had been looking for a project or volunteer program to get involved with. So when the Habitat for Humanity Nepal build was first mentioned at the NAWIC Ball last year it was perfect timing. After learning how ‘hands on’ our experience would be in helping these families and with the support of other friends in the industry going, it was an easy decision for us to sign up, so we did!

What was the purpose of the trip?
Liz: To travel to the Itahari region in Nepal with the Hand in Hand project for Habitat for Humanity Australia to build the first ten of 250 homes for Nepalese families living in poverty. In one week! We were two of 100 women giving a “hand up” to female-headed households, working alongside local families to help build simple, decent homes. The goal was to raise $500,000 to help Habitat for Humanity in Nepal to implement the two-year project. And with the donations from all 100 women, we were able to achieve this.

Amelia: This special build was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. The donations provide more than just bricks and mortar, and funding for this particular project, it helps improve health and education outcomes for children, and facilitate better employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for women.

How did HFH look after you and assist you through the experience?
Liz: They did an amazing job coordinating 100 women and all the builds. Once we arrived from Katmandu to Biratnigar by air we were greeted by their staff, whom had the whole week thoroughly organized. From all our transport, accommodation, meals, materials and special events, which were run on as much of a tight schedule as possible in Nepal.

Where did you stay? And what was it like?
Amelia: To accommodate the 100 women, we were split into three hotels in Birantingar, about an hour away from Itihari region where we actually building the houses. Tina, Liz and I all stayed in The Ratna Hotel. As all three of us have backpacked through other parts of South Asia before we were quite prepared for our accommodation. The hotels were very basic by our standards but to the Nepalese these were their top hotels in the area. Hot water was scarce and there was a common joke at our hotel that it was aptly named because you would often find a small rat in your room. But the staff were more accommodating and friendly than any other place I have stayed in.

What was the highlight of the experience for you?
Tina: It was very rewarding to get my hands dirty and contribute to the actual building of something that represents so much opportunity for my partner family. Handing over the completed house to Mani Kala and her three sons was an amazing, very emotional experience because during the build week, I had real opportunity to connect with them, and see life through their eyes.

Amelia: The entire experience was so rewarding. The highlight was the time spent building the house and the friendships you develop with your Aussie team members, but most of all the friendship you develop with your host family, mine being Krishna and her three children. Working alongside them to build their house you can make such a great connection (without speaking the same language), as well as see firsthand how important and joyous the house is to them.

Do you think you were able to make a difference or have a meaningful impact on the people you met?
Amelia: Definitely! The main impact is increased health for all the families having a proper shelter from the elements and clean water as well as safety from theft. Also education ensures that the women can stay employed to provide financially for their families. Some of the women have not been able to live with their children so now being able to do so I imagine will emotionally change their lives dramatically.

Tina: I wasn’t prepared for how much I would get out of the experience too. I almost feel selfish how rewarding it was to help out. It is a wonderful thing to put our lives back home in perspective in terms of what matters and what doesn’t. I also learned that one person can make a difference!

What did you personally get out of the trip?
Tina: I gained a new perspective on my life. I am grateful for the opportunities and choices I have that so many others in the world don’t, and feel obligated to try and make a difference in any way I can moving forward. I got to interact with and meet local people in a region of the world I would never have ordinarily traveled to, and have a positive impact on their lives. And I forged new friendships with some fantastic Aussie women!

Amelia: It was a life changing experience and I hope to do another build in the near future. There was a lot self-reflection on the trip and through the build I remembered what is really important in life and how lucky we all are. The Nepalese are such warm friendly people and it was an amazing journey to experience the hustle and bustle of their lives.

What did you think of Nepal? Did you get to see much of it?
Amelia: We didn’t get too see much unfortunately, but we were lucky enough to fly past the Himalayas and Mount Everest twice. So incredibly vast and beautiful covered in snow. In Biratnigar we were only 5 km from the Indian border and the streets definitely start to feel like it. They were very busy with people animals, buses, cars, rickshaws, markets, and even a snake charmer. Overall though, what really stood out was the friendliness and warmth of the people.

Would you go again? And if so what, where next?
Amelia: I would love to volunteer for another Habitat for Humanity trip, especially back in Nepal. As the program runs for two years and will build 250 houses in the region, I would really like to go back and help build one of the final houses at the end of the two years.  I think it would be really interesting to see how the community has changed over that time. And next time I would make sure I had time for a mountain trek in Annapurna afterwards.

Would you recommend the trip to others and if so is there anything else you would do differently or suggest?
Amelia, Tina & Liz: I would absolutely recommend the trip! But I think it would be best to coordinate the trip with some travel so that you get to see and explore more of the country you go to, but we did not have time unfortunately. Habitat for Humanity also run builds in other countries like Vietnam and Cambodia, which would be incredible as well.

Are you going to be able to continue helping the Nepalese people you met in some way now that you are home?
Amelia: Obviously having a house to live in will help these families for the rest of their lives. But generally Habitat for Humanity discourages any continual contact with the families as they promote a “hand up” not a “hand out”. The women worked along side us building their house and Habitat for Humanity will continue to help educate these women so that they can be financially independent.

Is there a way for others to help too?
Amelia, Tina & Liz: Yes, anyone can visit www.habitat.org.au to make a donation or to find out about future builds or events to get involved in. You can also become a fan on their facebook page and become part of the growing community. We are tremendously grateful to all our friends and family who helped to support us and donated so generously to this cause.

Habitat for Humanity Hand in Hand Volunteers in Nepal

* Click here to to see Channel 10’s recent “The Circle” interview with Jo Brennan, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity Australia.

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