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On Being a Team Leader with Habitat for Humanity

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed being the team leader for my recent build in Jordan with Habitat for Humanity. I’m a volunteer just like the other members of the team, but in exchange for taking on the responsibility, organizing and coordinating the build, leading it, and other duties associated with a humanitarian project, Habitat covers my volunteer fee ($1800 in this case) and also my airfare.

Planning

About seven months of planning go into doing a build with Habitat for Humanity.  A proposal is first made by the team leader (TL), and once approved, exact dates and locations inside the host country are determined.  The TL has the option of doing a closed or open build.  A closed build is when a group (church, corporate, school, civic) goes as a single organized team, being led by an experienced TL.  Everyone is from the same organization.  An open build, however, is my favorite.  This type of build is open to any qualified person from anywhere in the world.  Habitat lists the project on their website, and interested volunteers can apply to be on that build.  My Jordan build had volunteers from the USA, Canada, the UK, Germany, Hong Kong, the UAE, and the Czech Republic.  They all came to my team via Habitat’s site.

In the two months or so between a proposal and when the build is actually opened up for applications, the TL and an “Engagement Specialist” at Habitat for Humanity go over budgets, itineraries, and other special needs applicable to specific countries.  Also, the TL and Engagement Specialist work with a “Host Coordinator” in the host country.  This is someone who works for Habitat in the specific country and is the “point man” on the ground in that location.  For my recent build in Jordan, Chealsea was my Engagement Specialist, and Mohammed was my Host Coordinator in Jordan.  Both of them made my job so much easier and more pleasant.

Project information for the Jordan build, 2015.

Project information for the Jordan build, 2015.

Vetting Team Leaders

Habitat for Humanity takes seriously those whom they allow to lead teams.  The process:

  • Participate on a build as a volunteer.
  • Have a TL recommend you to be a TL.
  • Fill out a lengthy application.
  • Have a phone interview.
  • Receive a letter of invitation to participate in TL training (if you pass the phone interview).
  • Complete five online modules.
  • Attend a two day classroom training session.

A lot of information is crammed into those two days, but just like when participating on a build, those in your class become good friends and the time flies by quickly.

One favorite topic of mine was Emergency Management.  The scenarios given were from real situations on previous Habitat builds.  You’d be surprised at what problems can arise during a build in a strange country.  While in Jordan, my mind raced with horrid flashbacks to team leader training when the 18 year old, single female on my Jordan build (who had been a high school graduate for less than 60 days) wanted to go out drinking in downtown Amman on a Saturday night, assuring me that her parents “didn’t care” and “they said it’d be OK”  and “it’s legal here.”   After assuring them I’d take care of her when she signed up for the build, I wasn’t about to let her go out drinking in the Middle East.  As I used to say when I was a paramedic and something catastrophic would go wrong, “That’s gonna be a lot of paperwork.”  I told her I only brought six blank incident reports with me, and I intended to return home with six blank incident reports, and that the contingency funds I carried with me didn’t include bail money.  This would not have ordinarily been a big crisis to divert, but she decided to challenge me in front of the whole team, and I was trying to enforce the rules in a diplomatic manner, something that isn’t normally my specialty.

Recruiting

Recruiting is exciting.  I lead open builds, meaning that, other than inviting people I personally know to join, all of my applicants come from around the world via the Habitat for Humanity website.  Applicants usually apply to a few builds and then decide from there.  I love seeing that email that’s forwarded to me from Habitat containing someone’s desire to join my builds.  It’s a race to contact them and convince them why they should join my build over others.  There’s usually a phone call involved, which is referred to as an “interview,” but it’s really more of a question and answer session.  I use this time to answer any questions about the project and logistics, and to make sure they understand what’s involved in what we’re doing.  While there’s lots of time for sightseeing and other cultural activities, volunteers have to understand that we are going to a distant land to work and more often than not, they will have to get outside of their comfort zone.  Habitat builds involve eating strange foods, getting dirty, working hard, sweating…and also making new lifelong friends and making a difference in the world.  These builds are addicting.  There’s a reason that so many builds consist of so many veteran volunteers, and why the newbies are already planning their next build before we even finish the current one.  I feel fortunate getting the team I did in Jordan…six women, seven men; seven countries represented; six veterans, seven people brand new to the experience; four members ages 16-21.  There were about 40 initial applicants to my build.  Some people elected to not go for various reasons, but I hope to see them on another build.

Some of the name tags I made for the team, showing their name in Arabic as well as their country of residence.

Some of the name tags I made for the team, showing their name in Arabic as well as their country of residence.

Down to the Wire

In the final weeks leading up to the build, a barrage of emails are sent back and forth between me and the team covering everything they need to know–what to bring, what to expect upon arrival, a detailed itinerary, etc.  For Jordan, we utilized a third party contractor to arrange hotels in Amman as well as airport transportation.  I worked with Amani from Dead Sea Beach Tours (I love the name).

The final flight schedules of the volunteers.

The final flight schedules of the volunteers.

Getting the flight info out of everyone wasn’t too bad.  A few waited until the last minute or changed their airlines/times/dates, but the most difficult part was assigning roommates for the hotel in Amman on the front and back ends of the build.  I tried to pair up members based on how I thought they’d get along, having only communicated via phone or email for months beforehand. Other paperwork includes all passport info (including a copy of the front page), as well as any special dietary needs and/or personal preferences.  We try as hard as possible to accommodate vegetarian/vegan dietary requests.

In-Country…

Teams arrive in-country for builds at varying times.  Most people on a GV build plan a little vacation on the front or back ends of a build.  As a team leader, I establish an official start of the build when everyone is required to meet.  This is the exact time that Habitat and team rules become effective, as well as the international medical insurance plan takes affect, should there be any medical emergencies with a team member (if you’re in-country before or after the official start/end times, medical emergencies are on your own dime).  For Jordan, we arranged for a team dinner at 1900 in the hotel restaurant on Day One.  It was just  a chance for everyone to meet in person for the first time.

There’s always a team orientation on a GV build.  Depending on the size of the build, there might be two smaller orientations.  In Jordan, I saved the orientation for our second day (but actual first day of building).  Following breakfast in the hotel in Amman, we took a two hour drive northwest of the capital, about 35 miles from the Syrian border.  We settled into the guesthouse, then it was time for orientation, followed by a half day of building (kind of a chance for everyone to get their bearings before delving into a full day of work).  On Malawi builds, there’s an orientation on the evening of the first day while at dinner in Lilongwe, followed by a more extensive orientation on the second day before going to the build site.

Team orientation in Jordan.

Team orientation in Jordan.

Orientation consists of several things, from going over cultural norms and expectations of the host country, to safety considerations, to team logistics (being on time, where to meet, team member assignments, etc.).  Safety is the first and foremost concern of any GV build.  I can never stress this point enough.  It’s one thing if you’re on a build within an hour or two drive of a major city, but it’s quite another when you’re in the depths of Africa or Asia.  Volunteers sometimes think that if they don’t work all day, every day, and take breaks or pace themselves, other team members will think they’re lazy.  It’s not uncommon for volunteers to become dehydrated and suffer other affects of heat exhaustion or dehydration.  In Malawi we had two members have to take a total of three days off due to health reasons.  In Haiti, the heat was so intense and the loss of electrolytes so bad through sweating, Habitat had IV infusion tents set up for those that became dehydrated.  Other safety concerns have to do with using care with and around tools and building materials.  These builds are active construction sites, so you have to be deliberate where you place tools and materials to prevent injury to others, especially children.

As a team leader, my goal is to not just “lead a build,” but actually spend time teaching about the mission of Habitat for Humanity and other poverty issues around the world.  Many volunteers are on their second, third, fourth builds, and have been through this many times already, but for the first timers (and even the veterans), there’s always something new to learn.  Every morning begins with a “devotional time” (which has nothing to do with religion) where I put forth something to think about throughout the day–a perspective, if you will.  In the evenings after returning from work, and after a quick shower (sometimes with cold water–IF there is even water that day), and before dinner, we have a group meeting that lasts about 30-45 minutes.  I use that time as the TL to go over the workday (volunteers often have great recommendations on how to improve the build project), talk about plans for the next day, and then spend a few minutes discussing poverty issues.  I try to have a particular topic/theme each day.  For instance, when talking about the correlation between housing and health, did you know that:

  • …Habitat always installs a cement floor in a home, whereas most poverty housing in the world only has a dirt floor?
  • …Having a cement floor in a home vs a dirt floor can improve the health of a child in the following ways:
    • A 20% reduction in parasitic infections
    • A 13% reduction in diarrhea
    • A 20% reduction in anemia
  • …Improved health increases a child’s chances of completing an education, thereby improving his/her chances of success?

When talking about the mission of Habitat for Humanity, did you know that Habitat does not “just build houses,” but also:

  • …Provides health education in developing countries, particularly in regard to HIV/AIDS?
  • …Provides basic financial management classes and household management classes for recipients of homes?
  • …Empowers women in developing countries to start their own businesses, thereby being able to provide better opportunities for their children, especially when it comes to allowing the children to stay in school?
  • …Always takes the environment into consideration when planning and building houses?
    •  For instance, the house we built in Jordan was designed to use gray water to feed the gardens.
    •  In other developing nations, building materials are locally sourced and natives of the country are hired to work on-site with us.
    • The environment is always left in better condition that when Habitat starts a project.
    • As another example, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City is taken down each year and milled into lumber for use in Habitat homes in the northeastern United states.
  • …Establishes what is called “secure tenure” in developing nations, as well as estate planning.  Why is this important?  In many countries, people build homes wherever they can, even though they may not actually own the land.  This means that their home can be taken away at any time.  Estate planning is essential in third world countries as the male is usually the breadwinner, albeit in a dangerous occupation.  Should the unthinkable happen and the wife is left as the sole breadwinner, estate planning ensures that the home stays in the family and cannot be taken away.
  • …Provides locals with vocational training.  For instance, in Haiti, Habitat has undertaken a massive program to teach construction skills to locals, including women.  After completing the program, they are graduated and given a certificate.  This type of thing is essential to helping a country overcome the challenges of poverty.

More Than Just Building

As a TL, my goal is to immerse volunteers in the local culture.  Time is set aside for cultural excursions and interactions with local people.  I like to think of it as an overall complete package.  Anyone can “go build a house” and return home feeling good about what they did.  But it’s important that volunteers come away having learned something about a people and culture that they would otherwise have never known.  It certainly can give one a new perspective on the world compared to what you see and read in the media.

Taking care of some team leader admin duties on the build site in Jordan.

Taking care of some team leader admin duties on the build site in Jordan.

In Jordan this involved going to a different home each evening in the community for dinner.  We were able to be hosted in traditional Arab fashion.  Also, we took a few hours off on the third day of the build since we were ahead of schedule and spent some time touring the area.  We visited a soap factory owned and operated by women.  In the Middle East, this was worth visiting, and I was glad to listen to them tell their story.  We also visited a mosque and were randomly invited in for tea at various places.  In Malawi, we visited a few craft markets as well as a commercial crocodile farm.  This farm had over 17,000 crocodiles.  Early in the mornings in Malawi (about 0530), several of us would take a long walk along Lake Malawi and talk to several fishermen each day or talk to families who were doing laundry in the lake, washing pots and pans, etc.  Lake Malawi is bigger than Lake Michigan and is a fresh water lake that acts as a border between three countries.

The 2015 Jordan build project is finished and archived!

The 2015 Jordan build project is finished and archived!

At the end of a build there is always a final farewell dinner for the team.  In Jordan it seemed like we’d just met, and then it was all over and we were having our farewell time together.  The hotel in Amman was supposed to put on the dinner, just like they did for our initial team dinner at the start of the build.  But due to overbooking, they had to set up tables outside in an alley for us.  The staff apologized profusely for the inconvenience, but it wasn’t a big deal.  It was a clear, summer night in the Middle East and was quite actually a pleasant way to spend that last night together.  The homeless cats that meandered around us added to the experience.

That’s the thing about GV builds in strange countries:  You have to learn to adapt to things going in ways other than how they were planned.  In Malawi we went out to eat one night in the nearest big town as kind of a break and to reenergize everyone’s batteries.  The restaurant cooked two meals at a time, which resulted in it taking forever to feed 16 people, and the power went out for 45 minutes due to a government imposed blackout.  At the time, when you’re tired and hungry, those things can really irritate you, but when you look back you see just how funny they were.

Certificates were given to every team member upon completion of the Jordan build. It's important to recognize and thank volunteers for their selfless sacrifice.

Certificates were given to every team member upon completion of the Jordan build. It’s important to recognize and thank volunteers for their selfless sacrifice.

 

Final Reconciliations

After returning from the build, final reconciliations are done.

Survey:  The volunteers are asked to complete an online assessment of the Team Leader.  There are a range of questions as well as a place for them to leave comments.  There are 10 overall categories, and the results are then tabulated in an Excel spreadsheet and sent to the Team Leader, Habitat for Humanity International, as well as the Habitat office in the host country.  I am happy to say that on the Jordan build, I got a 97.4% overall favorability rating from the team.  The one area I was dinged on was that some members thought that I should have had tighter control on some of the younger members.  One veteran member said that a particular young member made the group feel “school group’ish.”

Accounting:  A final reconciliation of the funds has to be completed with Habitat.  A week before a build, Habitat wires funds to my personal bank account to cover various things.  These can include hotels and food in-country, emergency contingency funds, administrative functions (postage, printing, etc.), and more.  Receipts have to be audited and funds accounted for right down to the penny.  After approval of my expenses, funds left over are wired back to Habitat and a letter indicating final reconciliation is sent to the TL.

Debriefings:  A conference call is scheduled between the TL and Habitat to go over any issues.  This is a great time to toss around ideas to make future builds better.  Also, the TL is required to send a summary email to the team members within two weeks of the build.  It’s a great way to put things in perspective and leave a written record of such a unique memory.

I’m looking forward to 2016.  If you’re interested in any of my builds in the future, please contact me at shane.werle@gmail.com

Check out posts about Habitat for Humanity in the Global Village category, or other posts in the Social Justice category. 

© 2022 Shane Werle