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Catching the humanitarian bug from Habitat for Humanity
“Be careful if you go,” warned Marc Margulies, who recently returned from Poland. At Habitat for Humanity, they have a word for the addiction that many folks experience after their first humanitarian trip with the organization: they call it “Habititis.”
Once you’ve caught it, you will find yourself booking your next trip, and then your next, to travel to a new corner of the world and help build homes for those in need.
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit humanitarian organization popularized by former president Jimmy Carter and supported by volunteers with a desire to travel, and a conviction to give something back to the community they are going to visit.
“You can be a tourist,” Margulies said, “and go on vacations anywhere in the world; or you can go with a Habitat group and be in with locals, eating with locals, building with the locals, and seeing the country through their eyes.”
Habitat for Humanity has projects in many exotic and enticing places, ranging from communities near Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, to the faraway island of Madagascar, and countless places in between. Volunteers can, and do, donate anywhere from one day to several months of their time.
Margulies, cameraman, actor, and local business owner, and his wife, Lou, both of Mammoth Lakes, recently returned from a Habitat for Humanity building trip in Poland.
Their building team, lead by Dan Wright, formerly of Mammoth, consisted of 10 Americans, two Canadians, and a woman from Singapore; the ages ranged from 22 to 70-something.
While professional contractors are welcomed and appreciated, no building experience is necessary—there are many jobs to be done on a building site. Margulies spent most of his time mixing concrete, filling in old doorways, doing demolition work, yard work, and clean up.
The project was to refurbish a two story, 4,000-square-foot building that had been abandoned for seven years.
Previously, Marc and Lou Margulies travelled to Nepal and Paraguay, working alongside the families they were building for. This trip to Poland, however, did not yet have designated beneficiaries—all they knew was that it would be a shelter for single moms: a sort of halfway house.
“We’re ambassadors for America everywhere we go … we show the good side of Americans,” said Marc Margulies. Often, it was this team of mostly American tourists who were working the hardest—harder, even, than the project’s local paid employees. And one day, even the U.S. Ambassador from Kraków came to help out.
Margulies’ great grandfather came from Warsaw, so this trip had an added significance for him.
The project leader spoke no English, but knew that Margulies’ ancestors were from Warsaw. He rattled off instructions in Polish as if Margulies understood every word—assuming, perhaps, that his Polish genes meant he must, inherently, understand.
After nine days working alongside Polish builders, Margulies said he did not pick up much of the language, but he said he learned a lot about their spirit. At the end, the team had forged a deeply emotional connection—without words.
And it was difficult to say “goodbye,” even though they had at least learned that one.
The Habitat team was invited to return next April by the mayor of Kraków. To show his gratitude, the mayor offered to pay for all 13 teammates’ hotels and food, such that they may return to dedicate the building, and meet the single moms who will be living there.
For next year, the team will once again whittle down their list of project sites, this time choosing from Alaska, China, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Volunteers need only pay airfare and a fee to Habitat for Humanity, which covers food, hotels, and transportation while working on the project.
Most volunteers add a little “R&R” time before and after the building project to travel and see more of the area.
After their experiences on the building site, they undoubtedly see the country with a keener eye and a deeper understanding of the culture.
Who knows where Habitat for Humanity will take Marc and Lou Margulies and the rest of Dan Wright’s team in the years to come.
The only thing that is for sure is that there will be a next, and a next, and a next, until someone finds a cure for this peculiar disease known as “Habititis.”