When we moved I was very keen to do some sort of volunteer work, but somehow almost three years have gone by and I hadn’t found a good fit. Riding for the Disabled is popular but when you don’t like horses it’s probably not a great idea. I met with the Women’s Council with a view of doing some computer tutoring, but the other tutors had trouble understanding my accent so I didn’t think I would add any benefit to the organisation.
A couple of weeks back a notice popped into my Facebook feed that the parents’ association at the girls’ school was after volunteers for a one day Habitat for Humanity project.
And so it was that I spent the past Tuesday cleaning up a hoarded one-room flat for a family who were unable to bring their newborn daughter/grand-daughter home from hospital until their dwelling was in a better condition.
Habitat for Humanity have many different ways of helping the community and this particular project is part of Project Homeworks, which cleans up one-room flats for the elderly and others in need. A one-room flat comprises a “living hall”, about the size of a small living room in Australia, with a kitchen area and bathroom in a separate space at the back. This is by no means a large living space, but is equivalent to what I would term a “studio apartment” in big cities.
The process is pretty simple. A team of 10 or so people spend five or six hours sorting (throw or keep?), organising and cleaning.
What is not so simple is putting aside your judgements. I personally kept telling myself “do, don’t think”. I was very happy to not be assigned the bathroom and the volunteer who took charge of that did a magnificent job. The kitchen crew also did a sterling job of making the kitchen suitable for food preparation, even if it did take two hours of work before the kitchen sink was functional.
I spent my time in the living hall where I sorted out the families belongings and made multiple trips to the dumpster. It was confronting and weird to touch and assess someone else’s stuff. I was conscious of not wanting to throw out things without approval and I feel like I spent the first couple of hours walking around in circles moving piles from one place to the other without achieving a great deal. I’m quite happy to chuck out my own belongings, as I love a good purge, but these weren’t my things and although many of them looked beyond salvation to me I had to stand by the homeowners’ decision.
After many, many trips to the dumpster (I think we filled three?), and the town council also hauled away old furniture, it was time to get down to the cleaning. Walls were wiped of years of grime and nicotine, floors were swept to get off the top layer of dirt and then it was good old-fashioned scrubbing down on my hands and knees. It’s amazing what a bit of elbow grease can achieve!
It wasn’t a perfect job. We didn’t have time to organise their belongings but we did leave the flat looking brighter, cleaner and more livable. The family got to bring the baby home that night, so while I personally felt there was more to do we achieved the aim of the project.
I have to admit that this was an emotional day. It’s quite overwhelming to witness people living in these conditions but I kept reminding myself that this day was just one step in part of a bigger process. The clean up was just one link in a chain of actions to help these people to help themselves.
I think for the family it must have been massively confronting, too. Having ten strangers come into your house and start ripping it apart and throwing stuff away because the way you live is not acceptable must be incredibly awful and humiliating. I admire that they were co-operative and welcoming, with the grandmother giving us all big hugs at the end of the day.
Whilst it was a physically and emotionally draining day with my clothes and my body requiring a very long and very hot wash I would absolutely do it again.
If you’d like to know about Habitat for Humanity or to volunteer you can check out their website.
My friend, Naomi, was also volunteering with Habitat for humanity last week and you can read her very inspiring story here.