Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Change Someone's Life in a Profound Way

Most of us donate money, used clothing or other items to charities in order to help those in need. While I encourage this behavior, I have realized how putting in a little extra effort can sometimes make a much larger impact in the lives of those who need a helping hand.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chaperone a group of high school students on a trip to Costa Rica to build two homes for two needy families. The challenges were large, particularly since most of us had little or no building experience and we had two days to completely finish two houses. To put that in perspective, these houses were sixteen by twenty feet, contained two rooms and were wired for electricity but had no plumbing. Fortunately, the charity with whom we were working had an ambitious yet efficient plan to turn 30 construction newbies into two teams of hard working construction pros.

Beyond the challenges of language, living in a foreign country with different customs and morals and adjusting to different living standards (like open sewers in the streets) we had to contend with heat and humidity, the burning equatorial sun and a timeline that would make any project manager sweat. I was very proud of the work ethic of the whole team, especially the kids whom we shook out of bed each morning at 5am (these are teenagers, remember) and worked all day long in the hot Costa Rican sun.

Most importantly, and the reason all of us decided to give up our Spring Break for the opposite of a vacation was seeing the impact our efforts had on the families and the community. The first morning when we were faced with a pile of raw lumber and the empty slabs of concrete, we met each family who would receive the completed houses we set out to build. Both were young couples (18-19 years old) with young children (less than 2 years old). Both were currently living with a parent in houses we would barely deem big enough to store a lawn mower and our gardening tools. They spoke no English so our translator relayed to us their profound gratitude for our generosity in our money, time, effort and labor. We raised nearly $20,000 through fund raising activities to pay for the lumber and household furnishings. That's right, each fully furnished house cost $10,000.

It is hard to describe the emotions between our team members and these two families when we handed over the keys to their new homes. Homes that had doors that not only closed but could be locked, windows that had glass in them covered by curtains. A dining room with table and chairs set with dishes and tableware, glasses and serving dishes. A bedroom with bunk beds for their children and a queen sized bed for the parents all with pillows, sheets and comforters. And the house warming gifts we all brought with us: dish towels, clothes, jewelry and toys for the kids. All of these things we take for granted each day as we roam around our 2000+ square feet homes. Nothing compares to the experience of seeing the emotion on the faces of those families for whom these common items were like riches. That the 350 square foot homes we built were mansions by their standards. That having four solid walls and a roof that doesn't leak was a luxury in the community where we built them.

I'm not recommending that all of us have to travel to foreign countries to make a significant impact in someone's life. But it is both much more rewarding and much more helpful for the people you are helping when you put in that little extra effort, make that extra sacrifice, to change someone's life in a profound way.