By Vikki Ott, CPSM
SMPS San Diego Media Chair
About once a year I find myself with a pickaxe overhead, mid-swing, thinking “…now how did I get here?”
Last year, my pickaxe moment was in the town of Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, which sits at 9,300 ft elevation in the Ethiopian highlands, about 2 hours northeast of Addis Ababa. I was there to build homes as a member of a 13-member Habitat for Humanity Global Village team.
During our 2-week trip, we worked on a series of 350-sq-ft homes built of all-natural and locally sourced materials. We pickaxed into a rock-filled earth to create a foundation, carried boulders and shoveled dirt to fill in the foundation, staked thick eucalyptus branches for framing, used thinner eucalyptus branches between the frame to create walls, lashed walls and frames with strips of wet tree bark, threw a mixture of mud/manure to fill in the walls, covered the walls with a layer of cement, painted the cement with a mixture of cow parts*, and covered the structure with a tin roof.
Constructing walls made of eucalyptus branches
Using mud to fill in the walls
We worked on at least a dozen homes, and every team member had an opportunity to take part in all stages of construction. Every day we worked side-by-side with future homeowners who are required to work a set number of hours of sweat equity, as well as pay a reasonable mortgage, to own a Habitat home. As with most Habitat projects, it was hard work, but fulfilling for volunteers and future homeowners.
A row of finished homes
During our build, our team grew concerned about the lack of community resources in Debre Birhan. We began to realize that there was a need for more resources than just homes. We met parents who wanted their children to attend school, but the children often could not make it due to distance, poor weather, or other maladies. We interacted with children who were malnourished and had nothing more than an old paint can lid and stick with which to play. We met women who raising children on their own and living in 1-room homes the size of a small living room, yet they made room for us to join them at their daily coffee ceremonies. We met individuals who longed for a community, and were doing everything possible to create it, but lacked the capital resources to do so.
Children of Debre Birhan, Ethiopia
After we returned to the U.S., a core group of volunteers began to explore ways to help. Within a year of our return, THE COMMUNITY PROJECT: Ethiopia was established as a non-profit volunteer organization with the mission to build three key elements of community, including a school, community center, and a community garden. The project has attracted support from many of our original Habitat Global Village team, along with Engineers Without Borders, individuals, churches, synagogues, schools, and small and large corporations. And now, SMPS San Diego.
The SMPS San Diego partnership came about through the connection of THE COMMUNITY PROJECT: Ethiopia volunteer and yours truly. At the beginning of our 2012–2013 calendar year, SMPS San Diego President Carina Theissen learned of my involvement and proposed the chapter support this endeavor. The Board of Directors unanimously agreed and THE COMMUNITY PROJECT: Ethiopia is now the recipient of a portion of the proceeds from our 2012 Holiday Soiree, 2013 Golf Tournament and 2013 Awards Gala.
As I reflect upon the opportunities we’re about to provide to the residents of Debre Birhan, I realize how easy it is to participate in supportive communities that exist all around me. I have the SMPS community, my work community, and my neighborhood community. It is because of my involvement with THE COMMUNITY PROJECT: Ethiopia that I realize that’s not the case for everyone. I hope you will join me, SMPS San Diego, and THE COMMUNITY PROJECT: Ethiopia to support the residents of Debre Birhan and offer them the opportunity of community.
This post was written by Vikki Ott, CPSM, the SMPS San Diego Media Chair and Communications Manager at Haley & Aldrich. She is a long-time volunteer and team leader with Habitat for Humanity International, and has volunteered on 10 different builds worldwide. She currently volunteers 1–2 weeks every year to build homes for families in need of decent shelter.
*When asked “what are we painting with?”, our site manager responded ”Cow things. You know, cow fingers, cow skin, cow horns and so on.” Below, I’m 2nd from the right, painting with cow parts.