Sweat and tears made Chilean Habitat experience very special

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Over the years I had been involved in numerous one-day volunteer projects in the Ottawa area but I knew that there was something beyond that, especially since my retirement left me the time to get involved.

For me, it was Habitat for Humanity and a foreign land. It helped that the foreign land was in the southern hemisphere and I was also able to exchange minus-20 temperatures for plus-20 temperatures or, as I experienced, 20 days of blue skies and temperatures that ranged from 30 to 42 degrees.

The work was hard and the days were long. For that I was ready. What I wasn't prepared for were the tears. Everything else we did in Chile that March was expected but not the tears and not the lump in the throat and not the never-ending warmth and love displayed by a family who had nothing but themselves.

Habitat operates in more than 100 countries and offers dozens of opportunities throughout the year. The organization assists low-income families with building their own homes by providing labour, material and no-interest mortgages. The families are involved as much as the volunteers.

A search on the Global Village section of the charity's website revealed several dozen builds scheduled for that winter and a build in Chile caught my eye. I applied, was accepted and a few months later I was off. That was in March 2012.

It was hot but otherwise perfect building conditions. The 14 of us -- 12 Canadians and two Americans -- had been given a big task. Our group was split into two. My gang had to build a house from the floor up in two weeks. The others were assigned a renovation project a dozen or so kilometres from our site.

We were an eclectic bunch. The youngest was 15 and the oldest was a retired store manager in his early 70s. Four of us were retired, one was a high school student and the rest were like everyone else. We were male and female in varying degrees of physical fitness and living from Vancouver Island to Ottawa. No matter your physical condition there was something to do.

The family we were building for were eight of the finest and most wonderful people you will ever meet. Two were sisters and each had one child with severe disabilities. One of the sisters had two other children and a husband. The mother of the two women also lived in the house. Prior to us, they lived in a shack of two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living/dining area and a kitchen. There was no hot water and electrical wires dangled from the ceilings and walls.

Today, a full two years later, I still correspond with them and follow their lives on Facebook.

 Tony Cote

For two weeks we worked in the scorching sun and managed to finish a house in which the family with three kids lived. The other sister, her daughter and the grandmother lived in the original house that was later renovated to bring it up to a decent standard.

Emotionally, spiritually and physically it was one fantastic time. It was a lesson in love, and meaningful beyond words.

To read about my experiences check out my website.

Retiree Matters is a monthly column written by members of the Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC) that explores issues relevant to retirees, senior citizens, their families and their communities. CURC acts as an advocacy organization to ensure that the concerns of union retirees and senior citizens are heard throughout Canada.

Photo: Tony Cote

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