“Live generously” – these are the words Louise Malhotra heard over and over throughout her Global Village trip to Cambodia. The phrase adorned a group of volunteers’ T-shirts, it was said during one of the speeches made at dinner – it also came to her when asked how the trip changed her life. “It’s something I will continue to do – I hope to be a Global Village team leader myself one day,” she says.

Louise is a staff member at Habitat Canada, which works both locally and globally to build alongside families in need of housing. A firm believer in Habitat’s vision that we all deserve a safe, decent place to call home – no matter where we come from – she was one of more than 40 Canadians and 200 international volunteers who landed in the Battambang Province in early November to build alongside 23 local families living in informal urban settlements.

These families’ new homes were built on secure land using Compressed Earth Blocks, a building material made from damp soil compressed at high pressure to form bricks. The CEB technology was developed for low-cost and to promote the use of eco-friendly construction materials among these communities.

Louise says the homes they built alongside the locals were quite simple – “four stone walls, a cement floor, and a plastic pipe” – but that the new homeowners couldn’t have been more grateful to have a safe, decent place to live.

“It really opens your eyes,” she says. “We come from very different circumstances, but everyone wants the same things – kindness, a sense of community, and a stable place to live with their families.”

The homeowner she worked alongside was just 23-years-old. He’s been supporting himself and his younger siblings on just $6 per day through various construction jobs since their parents died. Before Habitat came along, he and his siblings didn’t get much sleep during the rainy season, because they had to hold up whatever they could to shield themselves from getting wet in the makeshift shelter they lived in. He cried at the end of the week when he was handed the keys to his new home. 

“It’s profound to be able to see the effect of what you’re doing right away, and to understand and meet the people whose lives you will change,” says Sharon Conway, the Vice Chair of Habitat for Humanity Okanagan. She also participated in the Big Build, working alongside a young 15-year-old girl, who took her mother’s place on the build site each day when she became ill. After meeting this young woman and witnessing how hard she worked, often with a smile, Sharon says it will be difficult to take a typical vacation. “I don’t think I could ever go back to just hanging about a place, not knowing the people or making an impact,” she says. “It’s totally addictive.”

Her reaction is common. In fact, around one third of all Global Village participants are repeat volunteers. Because it’s not simply the chance to help families in another part of the world that makes the experience so satisfying – it’s doing so with a group of like-minded individuals from around the globe who are brought together to work toward a common goal.

“Within seconds, the people you’re building with aren’t strangers at all,” Sharon says. “It’s like you’ve skipped the first year of friendship and you’re right into the real stuff. You share the same value system, the same enthusiasm for life and passion for helping others. It instantly breaks away any barriers.”

Louise, who’s already making plans to get together with her Global Village roommate who lives a province away, agrees that the experience creates strong, genuine bonds between the volunteers, and is confident that the connections she’s made will last long after they’ve left the build site and the family has moved into their new home.

“I found my tribe – like-minded people who believe in giving back, exploring the world, and living generously,” she says, echoing the words she heard over and over again during that life-changing week in Cambodia.

Would you like to be part of a Habitat Global Village build like this one? Another Big Build will be taking place in Vietnam in 2018 from November 5 to 9, when particpants will build alongside families living in a region of the country that's extremely prone to flooding. For more details, please contact Karla Bonilla at kbonilla@habitat.ca. To view our full Global Village trip schedule, visit habitat.ca/globalvillage