Habitat for Humanity Journeys to El Salvador

Matt Sennewald

To be honest, I am probably not the ideal spokesman for ‘Habitat for Humanity.’ I don’t regularly attend their meetings, I wasn’t part of the house build over winter term, and the only volunteer work I’ve done with Habitat was last year’s trip to New Orleans (a last-minute decision fueled by the desire to get away). In fact, one would find it fairly difficult to associate me in any way with the Lawrence group, especially since I am renowned for my selfish tendencies. Even so, as a student without much previous involvement in the group specifically, I was graced with the opportunity to join Habitat for their Spring Break retreat on their first international trip to El Salvador, an opportunity that I am more than thankful for.
Arriving in San Salvador, El Salvador, we were greeted by a very welcome grinning sun and temperate climate, immediately making the 23 hour trip seem worth it. We stayed at San Bernardo, a two-hour nap away, which was reminiscent of paradise. Bathrooms in each cabin, a restaurant that served excellent daily breakfast and dinner, and memory-foam mattresses likened New Orleans to torture. Furthermore, the hotel boasted two swimming pools, a campfire, trampoline, gorgeous acreage of gardens, and a spectacular view of volcanoes and mountains. Our accommodations far exceeded all expectations. From the very moment I set foot on Salvadorian soil, I knew that my future Facebook pictures would be wondrous, contrasting harshly with the majority of my visual representations. Of course, while we may have enjoyed some leisurely swimming and dining, the core of the experience was in the middle of the weekday.
We woke daily around 6:40 A.M. in order to get to breakfast by seven, leave the hotel at 7:30, and make it to the work site at eight. Two vans drove us through the bustling city of Sonsonate to the outskirts of San Antonio del Monte where we met the family and masons at the foundation of a very small house made of concrete bricks. Throughout the week, our duties remained fairly consistent. We mixed and placed two difference kinds of concrete (chispa and mezcla), we dug and moved (literally) tons of dirt and rocks, and we made sure we didn’t die by resting and drinking plenty of water. I decidedly put all of my efforts into this last serious responsibility. At the end of the week it was all quite fulfilling, as our hard work could be measured by the number of bricks we placed; however, after some teary goodbyes we discovered that we had built two different things: both a house and relationships.
Though brief, I am certain that I am not alone in saying that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the family and masons. They were extremely generous, patient, and understanding. The younger children kept us entertained while the adults kept us filled with fruit and snacks. Kevin, a six-year old deserving of mention, made sure to demand attention, though sometimes shoveling for me while I worked hard on staying alive and trying not to laugh at his futile labors. In general, they were all hard workers. Even the young mother of the family often carried supplies to help out, only smiling warmly to express her thanks. The three masons were all extremely laborious and patient when we did not know what to do. Of course, none of these individuals, we learned, was earning much money.
One of the most important parts of the trip was keeping things in perspective. One mason was paid $560 per house (a meager 700 ft2), while his other two helpers were not paid at all. Miguel, an assistant mason, had sustained an injury that necessitated surgery. We later learned he could not afford it and yet he did not complain once, making the act of carrying 60 lb. sacks of concrete look like child’s play. Having recently been through civil war, El Salvador’s poverty was often times apparent. However, I remain confident that we accomplished a lot, whether through building the house, or building relationships, or learning from the general experience.
As you have been reading this, I’m sure you’ve wondered what my point is. Though my primary intention is to simply recount the details of Habitat’s first international trip, it would be unfairly misleading (if not purely boring) if this were the only goal. I must further stress how wonderful the trip was in general. While the selfish part of me may have initially gone purely to better my reputation, or for the accessible and relaxing getaway, in the end I find myself pleased for a less superficial reason: the experience with Habitat was both humbling and satisfying, and I loved it.