As I sit here in Singapore's Changi airport on route back from Phnom Penh to Sydney, it feels like a lifetime ago that we commenced our Unite to Build project last Sunday. It has been an amazing week on so many levels. The attached blog from one of my partners Rory Greg nicely summarises our last day. His blog also includes a short video he made through the week capturing the observations of many of the team.
For me, Tuesday was a really emotional day when we not only got to hear our family's story but we also visited some other families already bettering their lives due to the "hand up" from Habitat For Humanity building them a home, as well as seeing first hand the terrible living conditions in one of the slum areas. Here's what I wrote in my update back to our firm that day...
"Team 8 also had the chance to hear the story of Chenda, the 47 year old single mother for whom we are building a home. A harrowing tale of poverty, sickness and lack of opportunity that is all too common in developing countries, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is stark. At the age of six, her parents gave her up to an orphanage as they couldn't afford to support her. Her husband got very sick but they could get no treatment for him as they had no money. Eventually they found out that he had "the disease" (HIV/AIDS) but he died a week later. Chenda later got sick and eventually discovered she was infected too.
She told us about her oldest son, who is 16, being unable to get to school every day as he gets sick a lot. I asked if her children had also contracted HIV/AIDS. She doesn't know because she hasn't been able to afford getting them tested. sadly, I suspect I know what the answer will be. She tells us that, once she moves into her new home and doesn't have to find $40 a month to rent the small room in a shared house, she'll be able to get her kids tested - and also her 10 year old daughter, who currently lives with her sister (as Chenda can't afford to support all three of her children), will be able to live with her and her brothers once again. She is so thankful to us for the opportunity her new home will provide her. She says that this is the happiest day of her life as she tells us her plans for her future (see below pic of Chenda with our team).
Today was lighter on physical work but more emotionally challenging than yesterday. Not only did we spend some time hearing Chenda's story before lunch but in the afternoon we got the chance to visit the homes of two families who have previously been recipients of Habitat For Humanity homes. These homes we are building are very basic indeed but it was truly uplifting to see how this "hand up" (rather than hand-out) from HFH had enabled these families to build better lives. It was great to see how both families had been able to make enough money to improve their very basic HFH homes and even purchase adjacent plots from which to run their micro businesses (one making wire cooking racks, the other breeding crickets, a local delicacy!).
And finally we visited the "dump site" shanty/slum area where many families still live in squalid conditions on the edge of the "smokey mountain" (the local name for the site, based on the burning mound of rubbish). We met a family here where 11 people live in a corrugated structure no bigger than a suburban garden shed. The immediate reaction from many of the team washat surely we can just give them some money - but unfortunately the problem of urban poverty is more complex. This was just one family in one area in one city it one country. The story is the same across much of Asia, Africa and South America.
As I write this on the bus back from the dump site, there is a lot to reflect upon from today. Helping a handful of families to build a better life is a start but are we doing enough? We have so very much when so much of the world has so very little. How can we make more of a difference? How do we take these experiences back to the office to become better leaders with a wider perspective? How do we balance our focus on growing our clients and our people (and our business) versus growing the broader community? I don't have all the answers but today has kept me focused on the questions."
What an amazing week. By working as a team, we have helped build new homes for 10 families.There were so many wonderful and challenging moments on this project. We are all immensely proud of what has been achieved. Today was our last day on site, and the homes are finished. It was an immensely important day for these wonderful Cambodian families, when they finally saw their dream come true. It was an emotional roller-coaster – with plenty of tears, smiles, and feelings of pride. We all truly shared an important and life changing experience.