Mikayla Roller

I was disoriented after my 6:00AM flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Stumbling off the plane, I was greeted by Lala, a driver for Habitat for Humanity Thailand, holding a sign bearing the HFHT logo. Lala and I didn’t share the same language, let alone the same alphabet. But we shared fruit. And laughter. And a collective commitment to building homes and hope.

These were recurring themes throughout my three days working with Habitat for Humanity Thailand. Interviewing American volunteers, Thai Habitat homeowners, and Habitat for Humanity Thailand’s North Zone staff, I think I can safely say that the three main components of the Habitat model cherish this common bond that transcends language, culture, and experience. My hope in writing this is that readers will work to join a much-needed group of volunteers in Thailand and that Habitat’s work will cultivate a culture in Kansas City that mirrors the one already present in Thailand.

The US Open Team of Volunteers

Lala whisked me away from the airport and plopped me in the middle of a circle of around 15 American volunteers. There were many tears. It was the last day of the US Open Team GV18879 build in Chiang Mai.

Open teams of volunteers are almost all strangers at the beginning of a seven-day adventure. I caught the group affirming one another and reflecting on the week. I was a humble observer.

Charlie and Carol — a dynamic husband-and-wife duo — were the team leads on the US side of the operation. Their goal was to build an intergenerational community of volunteers. They succeeded. The volunteers’ ages ranged from 19 to 78.

“I am learning to get out of my generational bubble,” Mary said in the circle.

She wasn’t sure what to make of the cell phone generation before the build.

“And what did you all think of 78-year-olds?”

No matter their preconceived notions, all volunteers had respect for Mary, who was the oldest volunteer at the site. Her past building experience was impressive: her and her husband had built a boat with their own hands and sailed around the world with their three preteens. On day one of this build, Mary lugged rocks alongside all the younger volunteers, earning the name “Gangster Mary” for herself. Her nickname is now etched on the wall of the house, along with dedications from all the volunteers.


Open team leaders Charlie and Carol

The names of all the open build volunteers carved outside the entrance of the new home.

The volunteers agreed that the first day was the most challenging. They encountered a lot with no walls and no floors—just beams. Fresh out of the vans, the group hit the ground running, immediately clearing the way to pour the foundation. Luckily, the workers were provided a cement mixer.

Charlie, who has led open teams in countries like Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal, Honduras, and Guatemala said this tool is rare. He was also impressed by the level of homeowner involvement at this Chiang Mai build. The future homeowners worked alongside the volunteers every day of the build, going above and beyond the 20 hours of sweat equity required by Habitat Thailand for normal builds. The father, Kidsada Supata, even slept at the build every night, guarding the supplies. Habitat will only pay for an allotted amount of materials per build.

A Neighborhood of Support

The team wasn’t sure how necessary these sleepovers were, though. The neighborhood was supportive of the project. A local business owner donated his soon-to-be apartment building so the volunteers and future homeowners could rehydrate in the shade. Neighbors wielded hammers throughout the week as well.

The almost completed product: final build day

With all the help, the house was 99% finished in five short days. The family of five will move in in a month’s time, after water and electricity are installed by the state. As with all Thai Buddhist house blessings, a monk will visit the house right before move-in day to pray a prayer of good fortune over the house. This is a more personal, private event.

The future homeowners left offerings outside their new home in memory of their ancestors.

Yet, the week-long build couldn’t conclude without a blessing from the volunteers as well. Habitat Thailand always presents a giant key and ties a ribbon in the doorframe for the future homeowners to cut. Apart from that, each house blessing is unique. Volunteers decide how they can best bless the future residents — with seriousness or silliness, or a combination of both. The Hong Kong International School that volunteered at a different Chiang Mai site that week showcased a dance-off.

I joined the circle as the massive key was passed from volunteers to the family. Bom, Habitat Thailand’s Hosting Coordinator, translated both the volunteers’ and the family’s well-wishes and thanks. “This house is your house, too,” Kidsada Supata said. “As long as this house is here, you are welcome.”

The volunteers got a preview of the family’s hospitality. They made delicious, spicy noodles for everyone to share; they passed out plush elephants for the volunteers to bring home. “I now understand why this is the land of smiles,” remarked first-time volunteer Peter after the ceremony.

I echo Peter’s observation. Supata and his family were not the only Thai homeowners to extend generosity during my trip. All the homeowners Bom and Habitat Thailand’s North Zone Manager Tom introduced me to on Monday showered me with fruit. I learned Au’s story over plum mangos.

The Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project

Au lives in House 17 of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. This pro

ject was organized by Habitat’s Asia Pacific office in 2009; it was carried out with the help of 2000 volunteers. Within the span of five days, volunteers, prospective homeowners, and Habitat staff built 82 houses in a Chiang Mai village around a 25-minute drive from Chiang Mai’s city centre. Joining the ranks of the workers was Jimmy Carter himself—though, Au was most excited to announce that actor Jet Li had helped build the home next door. A famous Thailand supermodel and the sister of the Philippine’s president built houses across the street.

Au compared the Carter Work Project to his old accommodation. “There is more love and attachment to each other in this neighborhood because we started with nothing,” he said.

A keen sense of community was fostered among the homeowners long before Carter arrived. For this special project, partner families had to agree to 400 hours of sweat equity. Most of these hours were completed together. The future homeowners made the bricks.

Pau, now the village leader of the Carter Project, explained the excitement during those sweat equity hours leading up to the build. The first time he saw his future property was on the first day of the international build; anticipation was built as the homeowners built the bricks at a separate location. Homeowners were given a land plan and instructed to choose their future house number at random. All the floor plans are the same. Pau drew House 48. Habitat staff and district government officials were at the reveal to congratulate him.

Shaking hands with Pau, the village leader of the Carter Project. To my right is Tom, Thailand’s North Zone manager. Another neighbor handed me the flower while we were talking on Pau’s porch.

Pau and Au recounted the wonderful madness of build week. “A lot of security checks: like the airport!” Au exclaimed. Both homeowners helped feed the groups who worked on their houses. Pau made papaya salad. No translation was needed— “very spicy!” he said proudly in English. I learned during my short time in Thailand that “very spicy” is somehow still an understatement. Be prepared for tears.

A Village of Happiness

Many names were proposed for the village. The residents voted on the name “Bee Em Suk” which means “82 Happiness”.  82 houses were built to reflect the age of the then king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej. The once longest-reigning living ruler is still revered. Au, a freelance artist for 42 years, gifted Tom, Bom, and I paintings of the late monarch at the end of our time together.

Habitat Homeowner Au’s paintings hang in homestays and hotels in Bangkok. His dog Tungus enjoyed the interviews as well.

Gifts in hand and the homeowners’ words in my head, my heart honestly hurt for Habitat for Humanity Kansas City. HFHKC operates in a culture where community and generosity are valued less than the individual. Pau claimed that 60 out of 83 families regularly attend Bee Em Suk’s monthly village meetings. I would say most neighborhood associations in the US struggle for such a turnout.

Habitat’s homeowner services looks different in a community-oriented country. The North Zone’s Community Development Officer (CDO) and his team recruit village leaders to help promote Habitat projects. Since communities are well-connected, these local officials easily find the families in financial need. “Most families here in Thailand know each other,” Tom explained. I could only name a handful of neighbors growing up; I doubt my family knew which of the families in our midst were struggling.  

The Habitat houses are more spread out in Thailand’s North Zone than in Kansas City, making it more difficult for homeowner services to put on workshops at the Habitat office. However, Habitat still facilitates relationships between homeowners. Since employment is not a requirement for homeownership, Habitat homeowners often do not have jobs on move-in day. Homeowner services encourages craftsmen and women in their pool of homeowners to train unemployed homeowners. “Families help families,” said Ton, the North Zone’s current CDO. When I left the North Zone office on Tuesday, staff members gifted me some of the beaded bags made by homeowners.

Homeowner services has initiated more programs for the res

idents of Bee Em Suk because of the proximity of these families. Habitat partners led compost, mushroom gardening, saving, safety, and disaster response training. They even built a library in the center of the neighborhood. Partners fund new books for the library every year. Homeowners voted to raise their own funds for a playground outside the library. Community members aim to build another playground soon: perfect examples of how Habitat enables homeowners to initiate their own change.

I know Habitat employees, volunteers, and families stateside strive to alter how attentive most US citizens are to the needs around them. It was encouraging rolling around in the back of the Habitat Thailand van hearing Carol and Charlie recount stories of the builds they led in Native American reservations in Montana. They haven’t neglected Connecticut communities in their own backy

ard, either. Margo, another open build volunteer, fondly chimed in with tales of the “old man’s group” in Tuscan—akin to HFHKC’s devoted Tuesday/Thursday crew of volunteers. It might not yet be a norm in the US to sit on the floor and share fruit with a stranger for an hour. At the same time, I smile from the Facebook notifications I get for house blessings in KC; I remember the potential for upward spirals because of Rock the Block. There’s hope.

“A house is a place I can live without fear,” said Habitat Homeowner Butsarat. Her family’s old home was propped up with wood—susceptible to termite and monsoon damage. Habitat volunteers helped her nail the wood from her old home in her safe new Habitat home.

“A house is a place I can live without fear”

Habitat Thailand has built and rehabilitated over 11,500 homes since its founding in 1998. Still, it is not well-known. A good share of Homeowner Services’ energy is devoted to explaining the cause to local leaders. There isn’t a shortage of corporate sponsors in Thailand to fund homes. Habitat Thailand’s base in Bangkok does the bulk of fundraising for the chapter. Rather, the North Zone experiences a deficit of hands.

After hearing the North Zone’s perspective, I was struck by the privilege HFHKC has as a household name. The volunteer calendar is likely booked solid for the months of May and June in Kansas City; the North Zone often has funding for community projects but lacks the help to carry them out.

The largest number of volunteers come from the US, Japan, and Hong Kong. The North Zone staff loves the diversity of volunteers. “A few years ago, my Facebook friends were only Thai people. Now most of my Facebook friends are international,” Tom laughed. Like most people in Thailand, Bom and Tom had never heard of Habitat before. They were directed to Habitat by job-hunting websites. They’re now hooked. “I love the last day of the builds when the homeowners have tears in their eyes. Most of the volunteers have tears too,” said Tom.  

I urge all those back in Kansas City to consider being among the volunteers the Chiang Mai staff adores. Help is not just needed for home construction. Teams can donate their labor to repair and rehab houses in the area. Volunteers are also used to paint, plant clean vegetable farms at, and build fish farms for nearby schools.

Prospective parties should visit Habitat’s Global Village website. Apply for one of the Chiang Mai open builds. There are two more planned for 2018.

While you’re there, share a gooseberry with Lala for me.