Ten-year-old Sherling Góngora Arauz found it hard to express her feelings at the dedication of her family’s new Habitat for Humanity house in Managua, Nicaragua. She could only cry. She had written a letter to the volunteers who helped build her family’s house, though, and it was read aloud in English. The last line: “When you leave, there is an empty space in my heart.” By then, everybody on the build site was in tears. “The little girl just started hugging everybody,” said Helen Usera, a 42-year-old management consultant in Rapid City, South Dakota, who was one of a dozen volunteers who paid their way to Nicaragua to build and to advocate for decent housing. “When we started to pray over the family’s new home, Sherling just clung to me. It was so genuine and so emotional. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is why we’re here.’ “At that moment, it wasn’t about the adults anymore. Those two young children — Sherling and her brother — were going to have a concrete floor, a solid home. That’s what it’s all about.”
‘An insider viewpoint’
Sherling and 3-year-old Samuel and their parents, Rosario and Michael, had been living in a one-room structure — three walls and a tarp — in a barrio called Sol de Libertad in Managua. Michael works long hours in transportation, while Rosario takes care of the children. They had little hope of breaking the cycle of poverty and showing their children a better future. But in December 2012, a volunteer team from Habitat for Humanity’s Build Louder program helped Rosario and Michael create a new home and a new beginning for their family. The Build Louder program adds an educational component to Habitat’s standard Global Village trips. In addition to spending one or two weeks building with families in need of shelter, Build Louder teams learn about poverty and housing policies and become better advocates for shelter issues that affect entire communities and countries.
“When people come on these trips, they not only see the incredible need, but they also meet the people that we serve,” said Jose Quinonez, director of advocacy capacity building at Habitat for Humanity International. “With the right tools and the right information, they can take what they’ve learned and go to people that can make a difference — government officials, other organizations and corporations. That connection makes them better advocates for decent housing worldwide. “Once they understand shelter issues on a very deep, personal level, they are energized to do whatever they can to change all the policies that trap people in poverty housing.” tarp — in a barrio called Sol de Libertad in Managua. Michael works long hours in transportation, while Rosario takes care of the children. They had little hope of breaking the cycle of poverty and showing their children a better future. But in December 2012, a volunteer team from Habitat for Humanity’s Build Louder program helped Rosario and Michael create a new home and a new beginning for their family. The Build Louder program adds an educational component to Habitat’s standard Global Village trips. In addition to spending one or two weeks building with families in need of shelter, Build Louder teams learn about poverty and housing policies and become better advocates for shelter issues that affect entire communities and countries.
‘There are no limitations’
At the beginning of the build week, volunteers were asked to write on a cement block one word that best expressed their reason for making the trip. At the beginning of the week in Managua, everybody on the building team was asked to think of one word that best described why they were on the trip. Each person wrote his or her word on a cement block: Bridges. Hope. Love. Future. Connect. On the opposite side of the block, Habitat Nicaragua staffers translated all the words: Puentes. Esperanza. Amor. Futura. Connectar.
All the volunteers knew they were part of something special that week, as they worked alongside the parents. The children, too young to help with construction, took great joy in drawing pictures for the volunteers and decorating their lunch area with colorful streamers and handwritten signs. At the end of the week, Felicia Brannon, executive director of community and local government relations at UCLA — and a former board member at Habitat for Humanity Greater Los Angeles — took the children’s mother aside to share a personal story. Brannon had noticed that the little girl was vision-impaired, unable to see out of her right eye.
“I think the family saw her eye problem as a hindrance, a barrier,” Brannon said. “So, I told them about my brother, who lost the sight in one eye when he was very young, playing with a hammer. When the patch was removed, he saw a doctor who looked like him,” an African-American. “He said, ‘You know, I’d like to be a doctor one day.’ And now he is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who owns a multimillion-dollar corporation and has invented a number of medical devices.” When the mother and daughter heard that story, tearfully translated through staffers with Habitat Nicaragua, they were overcome with emotion. “I think it helped the mother to see that there is a future for her daughter,” Brannon said. “Whatever Sherling’s passion is, they should pursue. There are no limitations as long as you have dreams and goals.
“Brick by brick, you build your way out.”
Back to the beginning
A house is only the beginning of this story. The Build Louder volunteers returned from Nicaragua to their regular lives, transformed by the experience. “When you have that family there with you, working side by side, it makes you want to do more,” Brannon said. And the Arauz family started a new life that suddenly seemed full of possibilities.
Shortly after the volunteers had left, Vittoria Peñalba, resource development manager at Habitat Nicaragua, found an eye specialist who thought he could help Sherling. After a thorough exam, the doctor said Sherling needed ocular deviation surgery. It wouldn’t restore vision to her right eye, but it would align her eyes and improve her sight dramatically. She is scheduled for surgery this month. Once recovered, she will need to wear prescription eyeglasses. The $90 price tag for glasses seemed out of reach for her hard-working parents — until Brannon sent a check for the full amount. In more ways than one, Sherling will see the world differently now.
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