For most, the concept of a vacation involves time off from work, rest and relaxation. After taking her three sons on several such trips, Christine Behan started researching different opportunities.
“I was trying to find a way to instill in our kids how much they have to be grateful for, without always using words,” she said. “I was just having a ‘mom’ moment and started googling ‘volunteering abroad’ and Habitat for Humanity came up.”
Habitat for Humanity, founded in 1976, is an international non-profit organization that builds affordable housing for people around the world with volunteer labour. It has helped more than four million people construct or rehabilitate more than 800,000 homes.
“I had heard of them before, so I just looked more and more into it and found out that you had to be 16 to go,” said Christine. “I tried to get the family to go all together, but two of our kids weren't yet 16 so that wasn't allowed.”
She and her husband Warren’s eldest son, Matthew, headed off to Guatemala in 2013, where they spent spring break helping construct a home.
“They came back and said it was the best thing they’d ever done,” said Warren. “So we decided we’d do it with all three kids.”
The next son to turn 16 was Cameron. In 2015, he and his father travelled to the Philippines. Youngest son Michael and his dad travelled to Vietnam for two weeks last spring to participate on another build.
Families are limited to two members per build team. This means participants must step outside their comfort zone and make connections, said Christine.
“Having done it now, I recognize that it is better to do individually,” she added. “The kids get a lot more out of it when they are forced to mingle with the locals and not huddle together as a family.”
The main purpose of these trips, however, is to construct a house, and the volunteer crew is put straight to work.
“You go there in your work boots and you work all day in 30-degree heat,” said Warren. “You’re digging the foundation by hand. Our kids were making mortar and laying bricks. The tools are rudimentary. A wheelbarrow is a big ticket item on a job site and there will be maybe one plug-in. Everything is done by hand.”
The couple said it was gratifying to see their sons’ work ethic and helpful attitudes on the builds.
“We’ve preached hard work to our kids their whole life but to see them doing it, and there’s 15 people telling you how great your kid is doing and contributing in this heat, it’s just a really cool thing,” added Warren.
Habitat for Humanity has builds taking place all over the world all year round, and the Behans participated in builds with Canadians as well as local participants in the countries they visited.
“This last build there were 15 people all from across Canada, all different walks of life,” said Warren. “Young people, retirees, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, single people. I’ve met people that have done 16 builds; it’s what they do. People who want to give back.”
Lasting friendships have come as a result of the experiences.
“Everybody is kind of outgoing and interesting,” said Warren. “Between the local people you meet, the fellow Canadians and the family getting the house, you get to meet everyone and it is an amazing experience.”
Participating in a Habitat build does involve an application process and financial commitment, said Warren.
“You have to qualify and you have to pay,” he added. “You pay to go and you pay for part of the building materials so it’s not cheap, but you can see that you’re creating a difference in people’s lives right away.”
On one of their days off, volunteers travel to local schools and bring supplies and sport equipment. The opportunity for their sons to meet youth with very different life experiences from their own was a valuable lesson.
“Our kids are pretty blessed growing up in a town like Powell River,” said Warren. “They got to play sports and do a lot of things. This was the best thing we’ve ever done with them, and they say that, and they were teenagers.”
Christine said the experiences expanded their sons’ world view.
“In today's society it is very difficult for our children to really grasp how blessed they are, because they simply know nothing different,” she said. “I wanted them to recognize that all of that is just ‘stuff’ and doesn't bring them anything but a fleeting happiness. True joy comes from within. Bringing them somewhere where children really do experience joy in the most difficult of situations was a real eye-opener for them.”
Now that their sons are older, Warren said he hopes he and Christine can volunteer on a build together.
“I definitely want to do it again as a couple and I’d love to do more in retirement,” he added.
As a family, the work the Behans have done with Habitat for Humanity has enriched all their lives.
“I would highly recommend it to anyone,” said Christine.“It's a great way to not only see a country, but to experience the culture firsthand while making a difference.”