Habitat for Humanity, 2006

Recently, the Nandalala Mission partnered with the Jimmy Carter Work Project of 2006 and Habitat for Humanity to build a 100 homes for the poor at a remote village near Lonavala, India. Report from Vic Iyer, one of our directors, who participated in the week-long project.

The task was to build 100 homes in a span of one week. It took 2500 volunteers from all over the world. End result – Mission Accomplished with superb organization and great teamwork!!!

It was the Jimmy Carter Work Project of 2006, organized by Habitat for Humanity, and the location of the above building blitz was a remote village, Malavli, near Lonavala, India. With the kindest blessings and approval of Mathioli R. Saraswathy, Founder/President of Nandalala Mission , Prasanna and I had the opportunity of representing Nandalala Mission and being part of the many hands from across the globe that worked together to build these homes.

Volunteers from Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Malawi, Singapore, Japan, United Kingdom and the United States, to name a few, arrived into Malavli, a remote village near Lonavala, India, in the early evening of Sunday October 29 for registration followed by the opening ceremony to kick off the Project. The opening ceremony was put together well with a series of short welcome speeches by the local organizers, a standing ovation for President Carter and his speech, followed by reverberating dance numbers of Lavina and Raas Gharba  from the  States of Maharashtra and Gujarat. The atmosphere was electric and the volunteers were itching to start. The house leaders, the crew leaders and the crew members visited their pre-assigned work sites to get a feel for what needed to get done during the week ahead.

Dinner on the opening night was a delicious feast featuring many of the sub-continent’s culinary delights. The quality was superior, and the variety representing the taste buds of the different regions of India was at its majestic best – this was never compromised in the three meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, that were provided to us during the entire work week. No single dish was repeated throughout the weekend what about dessert?  Well, we always had a choice of either an Indian sweet or an ice cream or both!!!

First day at the work site saw the volunteers fumbling through the available tools and materials, getting to know the crew members and the leaders, getting introduced to the home owners and watching them go through the traditional rituals and prayers for a good work week ahead. It was not long before the volunteers got a feel for the task in hand. The Pre-build phase was already done when we arrived – the build area was properly oriented and the foundations were laid. Our task was to complete the house – as simple as that.

Organizationally, we had a house leader and two crew leaders for each unit and each unit had two houses in it. Additionally, we had a mason and couple of laborers assigned to each unit. The number of volunteer crew members at any given unit varied depending upon the task at hand on a particular day and also based on requirements at other units in order to sustain the build on an even keel all around.

Our unit’s house leader was from Dallas, Texas; one crew leader was from Sydney Australia and myself from San Jose California. The international volunteers were from Japan, Singapore and United Kingdom with new groups of Indian volunteers joining us everyday from Citigroup, Mumbai and the local colleges around Lonavala.

End of first day resulted in the walls being raised half way through on all sides and the installation of the windows. This included a basic lesson and hands on demonstration by the mason on laying cement blocks, running the “line” to ensure symmetry, usage of half blocks and full blocks and filling the gaps with mortar – referred to as “Maal” by the locals.

End of second day resulted in the walls being completed, the windows sealed and getting ready for the critical alignment of the topmost row of cement blocks in preparation for laying the R-bars, rafters and the roof. This definitely was not an easy task until we got to aligning the block patterns for the roof and laying the roof. At that time, this task looked like a child’s play – everything is relative and based on how one perceives situations!!!

Wednesday saw the enthusiastic volunteers set up and climb on scaffolds, get on the ladders and lay the cement block patterns for the roof and stuff the gaps with the “Maal”(i.e. mortar). A day which saw a wide range of volunteer personalities – ones that made a beeline to get to the top of the scaffolds and ladders, ones who were initially skeptical and hesitant but whose chests broadened with victory and self confidence when they eventually made it the top and the ones with strong decisive instincts of staying on the ground and passing the blocks & mortar to the adventuresome!!!!

Thursday was the day of alphabets. Actually a single alphabet – the U block. For a professional, U blocks are no big deal. But for a novice, this could be tricky business. Majority of the volunteers were novices with minimum or zero construction experience. These are the blocks that make up the topmost row of the walls so that the R-Bars can be inserted into them to tighten up the construction, get a firm grip and tying together of the structure before the roof is put in place. Only the gaps between the U blocks had to be patched up with mortar and NOT the gap within the “U”. Believe it or not, that was a task that needed lot of monitoring and rework. The gap within the U was to be filled with Cement/Concrete after the R-bars were installed and not mortar.  What’s the difference? Mortar is a mix of cement, sand and water whereas cement/concrete is a mix of cement, sand, gravel and water. The American house leader kept referring to it as Cement and the Aussie crew leader relentlessly kept correcting him to say that it is concrete. I am not sure who won that battle but I think the 75 year old Aussie was the odds on favorite.

Thursday ended with all the U blocks in place, R-Bars inserted, roof rafters put in place, half the roof completed with tin sheets bolted down when a heavy downpour halted work and sent the volunteers back to their hotels. We had completed our full day’s work from 7:30AM to 5:30PM, our daily schedule, but wanted to stay on longer till dark to complete the entire roof.

It may have been the end of the day for most of the volunteers but for me, it was just the beginning. Tired with aching body and legs, my anticipation and excitement knew no limits. It was the day when our Founder/President, Mathioli R. Saraswathy (fondly referred to as PujyaShri Akka by many and as Mataji by others) was scheduled to reach Lonavala to visit the worksite on Friday. This was truly a dream come true and no words can express my feelings and gratitude that SHE consented to visit the worksite inspite of HER extremely busy schedule. Anyone who has or who will spend a single day in Chennai with her will know, feel and understand what I am alluding to.

In addition to physically exhausting myself, my thoughts were running off at a warp speed trying to time HER arrival in Mumbai, the drive to Lonavala, the anticipation of meeting HER and pouring out to HER about the work so far and the intrigue of knowing when SHE is going to be at the worksite and whom SHE is going to be meeting. Her book, “YOU know YOURSELF” was already in the hands of some of the volunteers and I wished I had more copies so that I could have given it all the volunteers that I had spoken to about HER.  A sense of concern also engulfed my thoughts as the dry air at the construction site made it very dusty and a nose mask was potentially needed.

As always, PujyaShri Akka knows it best and prepared the site for HER visit on Friday. The heavy downpour on Thursday evening caused minor disruptions and poodles of water at the worksite but then there was no trace of any dust anywhere!!!

The dusty conditions vanished, the air cooled down, the sun was comfortable and the temperature perfect when PujyaShri AKKA arrived at the worksite on Friday November 3 to be greeted by the communications specialist, Leigh Powell from Habitat for Humanity. After surveying the landscape and noticing the men and women at work, SHE took deliberate steps to observe all the minute details of the organized effort. SHE aptly  noted the various help booths set up for the volunteers – welcome desk, travel desk,  transportation desk, hospital, India Bazaar selling fancy handicrafts from the local area and the food court that had several stations to cater to all the volunteers during the rush hour.

PujyaShri Akka then walked through worksite to visit the unit that we were building. It was indeed very compelling to observe that SHE not only met every volunteer that worked on our site but also lined it up in such a way that SHE spent at least five minutes  with each one of them individually and yet, work continued with no disruption at all!

PujyaShri AKKA’s efforts globally through the Nandalala Family of Organizations and her vision of partnering with Habitat for Humanity resulted in good press coverage and interviews with the Indian Express and the Marathi newspapers – Sakaal and Lok Satta.

Friday afternoon was the dedication service where the houses were handed over to the deserving families. The Aussie crew leader had the following interesting story for the home owners: “A tired, hungry traveler reached a remote Indian village and knocked at a house door seeking food. A lady opened the door and told him that she only had one meal left for her son and herself. She was sorry that she had nothing to give and told him that they have nothing to look forward but starve. The traveler told her not to worry, told her that he has got a soup stone and asked her to take him to the village well so that he can make some soup. On the way to the village well, the lady announced to all her neighbors about the soup stone. The neighbors were curious and joined the traveler on his walk to the village well. They also brought along with them the vegetables that had grown in their farms. The traveler made a delicious soup for all of them using the soup stone. The traveler started to leave when the lady asked him whether she could keep the soup stone. When asked why, the lady replied that this was the first time in her life that the entire village got together and had a great meal together!!!”

After narrating the story, the Aussie gave a stone to each of the home owners in our unit and wished them good luck and prayed that the entire community will live together as the villagers in the above story.

Roof laid, house completed, keys handed over to the home owners and it was time to say goodbye. But before that:

  • Did we have celebrity sightings? Yes.
  • Was it just sightings? No. It was heart warming to see President Carter, his wife Rosalyn Carter, Brad Pitt, Diana Hayden, John Abrahim and Pooja Bedi laying the cement blocks and bolting down the roofs.
  • Did we have reasons to complain? Yes. Did we complain? No. We heard, accepted and did not dwell on the fact that some volunteers could not take hot water showers in their hotels and had to endure power failures at unearthly hours.
  • Did we have those moments of frustration working as a team? Yes. Did we react to it? No. We ignored it for the larger good.
  • Did we have situations that led us to doubt whether we will complete our task? Yes. Did we despair? No. The downpour on Thursday evening resulted in power outage at all the units. Decisions were made and communicated to everyone. A runner was designated for each unit and his/her job was to take the dead batteries for the power drills to the materials area and exchange it for the fully charged ones.
  • Did some units have volunteers with better skill set? Yes. Did that mean that these units got built faster or better than the others? No. Work load and completion percentage was constantly monitored and volunteers reassigned to various units to maintain certain level of equilibrium.
  • Did we have team spirit? Absolutely yes. Each one of the above observations is testimony to our team spirit. Every volunteer’s effort spanning from keeping the work site clean to supplying water bottles to building the house was appreciated. No job was small and no effort was trivialized.

It is possible to think that such a team spirit was possible because of the short duration of time. Yet, after representing Nandalala Mission in three different Habitat projects, I am convinced that the team spirit is just natural due to the greater cause, a certain sense of detachment and of putting in effort with no expectations in return.

From teaching and explaining different uses of the word “Maal” to the international volunteers to being the translator for my house leader and subsequently to President Carter and his wife, Rosalyn to listening to PujyaShri AKKA as she walked through the worksite– these are cherished memories that will always be with me.

Memories such as these are personal in nature. It is my ardent desire that every member of Nandalala and its extended family will have such an opportunity in the future and would personally be delighted to be part of it. Why not? You won’t regret it – not for one bit.