I’ve been back from Thailand for two months already. It seems like I just got back. Time goes by so fast. People still ask me about the trip and my face lights up and I get excited talking about it. “Did you like it?” is a common question, basically a generic and benign segue into conversation — you know, when people are trying to be friendly and feign interest but don’t really know what else to say? It’s a mistake on their part, because I can’t stop talking about it.
Asia has never really been on my bucket list. I figured I’d get there one day, but I wasn’t going to go out of my way. So in late January, 2016, when Habitat for Humanity asked if I’d take over a build there at the last minute, I looked at it as I do most opportunities in life: TAKE IT! “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” Darlene, the ‘Engagement Specialist,’ the person at Habitat who helps plan the builds for the Asia region, had been on a build in Chiang Mai once before and she assured me I would absolutely love it. I told her I’d give her an answer within the next 12 hours. I did some quick research and it didn’t look too bad. We talked the next day and I excitedly agreed to lead the build.
Of course, as the Team Leader, my main goal was to successfully lead a team there to build a house in a week. But like most builds, the volunteers usually tack on a few days of R & R before or after the build, or both. I started looking at Chiang Mai and realized just how much fun the city seemed. I took the remnants of the team and started recruiting and interviewing more people. I had basically five weeks to get it together, even though the build was still eight weeks away. But we had to get the logistics settled a few weeks before departure. This team was originally scheduled to go to Nepal, but security and logistical issues forced it to be rerouted. Most of the team and the original Team Leader backed out, and I was quite honored when Habitat asked me to take over and salvage what I could.
I’m not really writing this to talk about the build so much, as I’ve done that in other places. I’m more interested in talking about the people on my team and those I met in Chiang Mai. I’ve been on several builds with Habitat for Humanity. Team members come from all walks of life and numerous countries. We all become great friends. Many of us keep in touch, some of us just touch base once in a while. A select few become lifelong, great friends. This build was so different in so many ways.
It takes about 24 hours once a build team comes together before they reach that point of becoming comfortable with each other. With this team, it occured within 12 hours. I have never met a team where so many of us became so comfortable with each other so much, so fast. What does “comfortable” mean? Some people think humanitarians are all serious, but it’s not that way at all. We ripped into each other with the insults and jokes and also shared personal details of our lives — all within the first half day. Despite the 40° C heat, and the physically demanding work, we spent so much time laughing with and at each other. I sincerely and thoroughly enjoyed waking up each day, knowing I’d be spending the day with them.
After a full day on the worksite and the 50 minute drive back to the city, we would finally reach the hotel. We were hot, tired, sweaty, dirty. We’d stumble back to our rooms and shower and refresh, then meet for dinner around 1900. We’d get our second wind for the day. After dinner, we’d all hit a few bars every night and just spend time talking and having such good time until 2300 or midnight, before heading back to the hotel.
We had a “cultural day” where we toured some sites and temples around the area. The bond between us was the same as the work days. I’m not one to share the most intimate details of my life with people I hardly know. But with this group, they knew everything about me, and I knew everything about them. I felt completely comfortable sharing everything with them.
When the build finally ended (officially), we all spent a few extra days in Thailand. One day we took a hike in the remote mountains in northern Thailand, one day three of us went to Myanmar, etc. What really struck me as unique — and really made me realize what a great team we had — was on the day Kirsti was scheduled to leave. We said our goodbye’s in the lobby and off she went. Two hours later there was a knock at my door. I opened it and saw April with a strange look on her face. My first reaction, both mentally and verbally, was, ‘OMG, what’s wrong?” She held a straight face for a millisecond, then broke out into laugher as Kirsti came into view. She told me she’d gotten to the airport and broke down because she missed us so much. She changed her flight to spend another 48 hours with us. The costs were irrelevant. She just couldn’t bear to leave us.
Since I’ve been back, one person is making plans to meet me in Atlanta on their way through, and I will be seeing another team member when I travel to Detroit in August for a wedding. What really struck me was an email I received about a month after being back. The team member said they meant to write earlier, but just wanted to thank me for doing such a good job leading the team and leaving them with such a wonderful experience and memory. They went on to make a couple of other comments thanking me for being “such a good team leader.” Of course, I’m not going to lie and say those kinds of words don’t matter, because they do. I am at my most comfortable leading teams. I am very passionate about volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, and it is really on display when I’m leading a team. To me, it’s not just about building a house, but leaving the volunteer with a “complete package” of personal enrichment, accomplishment, memories, and learning about themselves, as well as the fun that goes along with these builds. There’s no rule that says you can’t have fun while giving back. So when someone takes the time to write me and thank me and let me know that my leadership meant so much to them, it makes me stop and think. Plus, this team member is already making plans to join one of my 2017 builds. That’s the real compliment: When someone likes you so much that they follow you around the world on builds. It’s not the first time that has happened. I passed out evaluations at the end of the build, and I excitedly read them when they were all returned to me. The gist of the evaluations stated that I was organized and obviously knew what I was doing, but I got the highest compliments when it came to what I call “team dynamics” — how did the team get along?
The team of GV16337 certainly left an empty spot in my heart when we all finally returned home and got back to our daily lives. I have had lots of success with leading teams and making people feel comfortable and learning something about themselves on these builds, always having lots of good times and spending hours laughing. But there was something about this team that I can’t explain. It’s funny how the universe drives people together. Sixty days prior I had no idea I’d be in Thailand. Then, I took the remnants of the original team, added a few new people, and we all met up in a place in southeast Asia.
As I prepare to lead future teams, I’ve reflected on what it was that made this team so close. I haven’t been able to pinpoint the formula yet, but I think I can recreate it on my next build. It’s like creating a dessert that tastes wonderful, so you want to do it again but you don’t have a recipe. Your experience tells you what goes into it and all you can do is try it again.
The team of GV16337 taught me many, many, many things about myself in such a short amount of time, but they’ll never know just what an impact they made on me. All I can do is look at the pictures and smile as I reminisce about my time with them. There are two things I have learned in life that I think about over and over: 1) Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor; and 2) Everyone you meet in life has something they can teach you about yourself.
Thank you, GV16337!