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July 2010

Habitat for Humanity extends hand to Pacific neighbours

By Hilaire Campbell

Habitat for Humanity has a slogan that neatly sums up its work: ‘Building homes, building hope’.

“We have thousands of volunteers in over 90 countries,” says Habitat NZ marketing manager David Lawson. “There’s a Habitat home built every 20 minutes somewhere in the world.”

Habitat was started in the US by self-made millionaire Millard Fuller, who courted some of the most famous people for his project. Millard forfeited his wealth to start a Christian ministry that uses donations and voluntary labour to help low income families into simple, decent, affordable housing.

With Millard’s help, a few interested people started Habitat NZ and built the first home in Pukekohe in 1993.

Today the model is basically the same. Unlike with traditional mortgages, Habitat charges no interest, and makes no profit.


Habitat for Humanity is sending teams of 25 volunteers to help rebuild the Samoan villages
razed by the earthquake and tsunami last year.

David says the work of Habitat is not charity. “The 360 houses we have built in NZ are a great investment in the future of our society. A hand up not a hand out, we say.”

In the Pacific region housing is a different ballgame because the weather can intervene. After the September 2009 tsunami in Samoa, there was an outpouring of concern from NZ because some Kiwis were killed, and because we have strong kinship links with the Islands. So Habitat decided to help reconstruct.

Many villages on the south coast of Upolu were wiped out. In Lepa where Habitat set up its headquarters many fales bore the brunt of the Tsunami and were destroyed.

“We got set for disaster response,” says David. “We needed more bracing, gang nails and steel plates to counter cyclones, and we laid concrete foundations using a Cable Price digger. We called for volunteers and the Samoan government had funds coming in from round the world. By the end of last month we had built 90 houses.

“The key to everything is partnership. Habitat is strong on enabling. In Samoa we consulted with Samoan architects, and engineering and design folk – they know the weather first hand.”

Habitat NZ provided project management and labour for all the reconstruction work. Between November 2009 and June this year, 500 volunteers paid $1200 for two weeks in Samoa. Many will go on to Fiji to rebuild after Cyclone Tomas in partnership with Habitat for Humanity Fiji.

“The volunteers are blessed and impacted by the experience,” says David. “They’ve gone to bless, and been blessed themselves.”

David has been to Samoa twice. He says the tsunami has generated huge publicity for Habitat NZ.

Volunteer says rebuilding Samoa is hard, hot, rewarding

Rev Murray Wakelin is a good all rounder – preacher, educator, and home handyman – and he is used to small comforts. “My office is in a shed,” he says.

In April Murray and two members of his congregation, Auckland West Elim Church, Henderson, joined Habitat for Humanity’s ‘Team 24’ to rebuild homes in Samoa destroyed by last year’s tsunami.

Murray said those he joined in the reconstruction work came from all walks of life: from school leavers to pensioners, and others like him on annual leave.

“In any group of 25 volunteers there were a number of trades people. One young chap made redundant from the IT industry said his mother put him up to it. She works for Air New Zealand, one of Habitat NZ’s sponsors.”

Murray has been a pastor for 14 years. He says he is good with his hands, and went to Samoa to do a job, not as part of the Church.

“Nevertheless, it was very emotional to sit with people who have been through it all. TV reports don’t compare. There was a big strapping 20 year old who’ll never go near water again. He told me half of those in his extended living area were drowned. That’s 34 out of 70. Two little children’s bodies haven’t been found.

“I heard these stories time and time again,” says Murray “We just affirmed to them why we were there. As Scripture says, laugh with those who laugh, cry with those who cry. “Our prayer was that the Samoan people would know that there are people across the seas who are standing with them, that they are not alone in their grief and in the process of rebuilding their lives.”

He says Habitat for Humanity has a contract with the Samoan government. It has sent teams every week since January 2010 to villages on the south coast of the Island of Upolo.

“That’s where the damage was worst. We were in Lepa, where we were hosted by the Christian Congregational Church. Accommodation was marae-style in the church hall. Nothing touristy about it.

“Temperatures were in the 30s every day with high humidity. Some team members got sick through dehydration, others from eating new foods.”

There were 50 volunteers on the ground, Murray says. “Every week 25 arrive and 25 leave. The first lot teach the second, so we shot up the hierarchy very quickly. One week we were learners, the next we were experts.”

Murray’s average day consisted of lights on at 6:00am, breakfast 6:30, then at 7:00 down to the Resource Centre in an old fale, for materials. Teams were well organized, and were transported in vans to the worksite. Work finished at 4.00pm and then it was off for a swim.

“After a days work that was a real highlight,” he says. “Life in the village is slower, simpler, and stress-free. Chooks scratching around, the odd mangy dog. No motorways. The big hotels are in Apia are over an hour away.”

Murray says being a volunteer was physically hot and hard, emotionally demanding, yet spiritually uplifting and edifying.