So…did you actually build houses?

After coming back home and explaining to many that I worked in Chile for an organization that provides housing for the poor, the most common questions that follows has been “Did you build any houses?” After five weeks of working at the central office in Santiago and visiting communities all around, I was able to experience another side of the organization when I went on the 10-day construction trip to actually build houses referred to as “Trabajos” or “Secondarios”. I didn’t have my computer during this experience but I tried keeping detailed notes to document the week (although at times I was extremely exhausted and couldn’t keep it up). Here is my account of the construction project I was involved in, followed by my experience working with the office in Santiago.

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Day 10 – Heading Home

The reality of this adventure finally starting to come to a close was finally starting to sink in. As I was heading back to the high school the night before I started to feel a little feverish. Being around 100 other students, doing physically demanding labor combined with the lack of sleep I was getting were probably not the best things for my health but luckily I hadn’t gotten sick thus far. Sofía was in charge of taking care of the sick people so she had told me all about her trips to the hospital and how she had to send some people home for being so sick. I was hoping that going to sleep would make the achy feeling go away which luckily, it did! Everyone woke up this morning and ate a relaxed breakfast. Finally, the last time I would ever have to eat this bread!

At the site, as a part of the inauguration, everyone received a paper and were prompted to write a dream we had for the future: A dream for our future lives, a dream for the future lives of the families we helped or a dream we had for the future of Chile in general. Everyone put his or her dreams in a hole and we buried them under our final wooden cylinder. Everyone received a bracelet that said TECHO – Secondarios and we marked the cylinder by nailing to it one of these bracelets. Everyone was excited to have finished the 10 days but also sad to say our final goodbyes.

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I never expected that I would get so close to my group but after spending 12 plus hours a day with them for the past 10 days we ended up knowing so much about each other. We had one final meeting with our groups where we each got a chance to share where we were at with the whole adventure and how we felt about the experience. Everyone got a little sentimental as we had our final group hug and said goodbye.

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We separated into different buses depending on where we were going and Sofía and I finally got a chance to really talk about how the week went with the 10-hour bus ride. She was excited to hear what I thought of the whole process and experience especially as a foreigner. The bus ride was long and I kept thinking of how excited I was to take a shower and finally sleep in a nice, warm bed. The bus ride was long but also very beautiful. Since we embarked so late 10 days ago it was dark and I couldn’t see any of the ride. This time we spent all day driving so for the times I wasn’t napping I got some really beautiful views of the coast on one side and hills on the other as we headed down the 5. Chile truly is a gorgeous country.

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When we arrived back in Santiago, the large urban city felt very different in comparison to the small rural area we had spent the last week. Sofía and I ended up walking to one of my cousin’s house hoping someone would be home to take me back to my great aunts house. (Little did I know my cousins were scheming behind my back the whole time). When I arrived back to my abode I was eager to say hello to my great aunt and uncle but also couldn’t wait for the much needed shower I was going to have. Little did I know 8 of my cousins were in the kitchen awaiting my arrival. Obliviously, I got in the shower and took a very long, relaxed shower scrubbing and re-scrubbing every part of my body. When I finished and got back to my room one of my cousins was there to direct me into the kitchen where they all exclaimed “Surprise, Welcome Back!” I was beyond the point of exhaustion but I was so thrilled to be able to see my favorite cousins before heading back to America the next afternoon. We had a small going away party with the most delicious home made soup and tres leches cake for dessert. My cousins made a recipe book for me so that I could bring a little bit of the Chilean culture I had learned back home with me. It was such an amazing surprise and the whole day felt like the perfect close to my two-month Chile adventure. I couldn’t believe that it was finally time to go back home. After such a long time here and with what felt like unfinished business still to be done, I was left with a feeling of abandonment. I was reassured with the thought that maybe one day I will be presented with an opportunity to come back and see the incredible progress that will take place in my absence.

Day 9 – Final Day of Construction

Today was the day for us to put on the roof and specific to this house, it was our job to construct the windows and the doors on our own rather than just doing the installing. The warm sun came up in the early afternoon and remaining shining for a large portion of the day. This was a pleasant surprise compared to the previous days of construction. Good thing we had the walls up to create some shade to keep us from overheating as we worked. The whole project was really coming together as all the houses lined up next to each other started to look more and more like a neighborhood.

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Another interesting aspect about an organization and program only run by youths to add to what I mentioned earlier is the making and enforcing of rules. The conversations when having to do with punishment are rather unique in that they aren’t authoritarian in any way. Yes, rules are rules and for this trip there were only three, No drugs, No alcohol and No sex (basically no rock’n roll). When one of these rules are broken the protocol is known by all participating: your parents are called and you are immediately placed on the next bus back to your home as well as losing the privilege of participating in any TECHO events for the next two years. The only reason I know this is because 2 members of my team were caught with drugs and sent home the day before our last day. In the afternoon, the leader of our school came to talk to our group to make it clear what had happened. He explained that he is only 21 and when there are young people enforcing the rules for the 86 other 15-18 year olds it is important for the rules to be clearly enforced. Everyone signs a paper saying they with sustain from doing these three things for just the 10 days that they are here. It was unfortunate for our team especially because it was crunch time and these two guys were our main roofers from the last construction site. Fortunately for us with the help of some other groups, everyone knew it would be possible to finish. Our whole team was a little upset but understood the consequences that needed to take place for the poor decisions that were made by the boys.

The day continued to get more and more pretty as the sun began to go down the full moon began to rise.

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We worked all day to put together the roof and assemble to doors and windows but the doors were surprisingly extremely time consuming. We had to chip wood away from both the door and the doorframe in order to make an indent for the hinges to fit and it had to align perfectly. We ultimately ended up staying at the site until midnight working on the final door, boy was I exhausted. The inauguration that was scheduled for tonight was postponed to the morning because we couldn’t complete the house in time.

Day 8 – Time to Buckle down and Get down to Business

After one of the longest, most physically strenuous days, getting up the next morning wasn’t the easiest. However, as I had been doing the past 7 days, I woke up at 6am and made it to the cafeteria bundled up in all the jackets I had brought with me. When we took the bus this morning back up the steep hill to continue our work, I realized what terrible shape my hands were in from all the dirt scrapping and accidental hammer hitting. Despite the pain, we were being very productive. We got the floor in place in the morning before lunch and finished with the walls around 11pm. We even had time for a midday dance party on the floor.

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In the later part of the night we were invited for tea with a family that lived in a nearby house. It was very kind of the family and by that time at night I was very hungry and cold so the tea and sandwiches were perfect! Today and yesterday we had much less time than we did the last house to get to know the family because they lived far away and only came by in the evening. Our family however was very nice. The children were always excited to help by digging and hammering.

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Day 7 – Round Two

After 6 long days of work here I’ve acquired a better understanding of the functional aspects of the “trabajos.” The dynamic of this program is very unique in two significant ways that I have noticed so far. First, it is founded and run solely by the youth of Chile making for a very special and distinct organization. This approach encourages a high-energy environment paired with a large amount of freedom for the teenagers to sing, dance, play and learn together. It also demonstrates the large amount of passion the youth of Chile have toward bettering their country for the future. I see a lot of Chilean pride when they chant the national slogan or have discussions about their country of residency and the people of their country. It has proven to bring about a democratic process in big decision-making that everyone is affected by. For example, this morning when we were supposed to start our second construction site we ran into a little problem. The bulldozing trucks were running behind and hadn’t gotten to clearing all the land that we were planning to build on. The two leaders of the school sat us all down, explained everything that was going on and asked if anyone had any ideas or suggestions that we could do to solve the problem. Everyone was still determined to make the construction happen and several people came up with some good alternatives. We of course decided to do whatever we could to make the construction still work. The process seemed very fair; the leaders of our school didn’t make any decisions or changes without informing and asking the opinions of everyone else whom the decisions would affect.

After a discussion the night before about what to do, we decided to get into our groups and each write down the dimensions of the land and how far the posts had to be installed. This was so that we could be more time efficient when we worked because we were already a day behind. We were encouraged to keep our energy up for the new family we were going to meet. When we got to the site in the early afternoon we immediately got down to business with the tape measures, laying out where we would be digging the holes. Everyone was working hard and fast. This land had many more heavy, large rocks that seemed almost impossible to break and remove requiring the work of a very heavy sledgehammer and often several people.

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This site was more fun than the last because all the groups from more than just our school were lined up next to each other to construct. We were right in the middle so when a big speaker was brought to play blasting music to keep our energy up it was stationed right in front of our group. It made it harder for me to hear and understand the instruction of others, especially in Spanish, but as everyone sang and danced along to the music it made for a much more entertaining and fun experience. After lunch the family came to check on our progress, two of the men who were the boyfriends of the family helped us to dig the holes.

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Instead of the two days that we had for the first house to dig the holes we had to condense that process into just today. That meant that we worked until 11:30pm. Big trucks came after the sun set to shine their headlights to help us see what we were doing but we needed our phones to shine in the holes to see the rocks that needed to be removed. It was extremely tiring and the long hours seemed to never end but finally it was time to go home and with no time for any activities we ate quickly and everyone went straight to bed.

Day 6 – Saying Goodbye

Woke up this morning feeling grateful, but missing my shower. I’ve been wearing a hat lately that not only keeps me warm but also covers my unwashed, greasy hair. Today was our last day working with our first family and tomorrow we will be meeting our next family who we will be building a home for. It was a bitter sweet day, we were excited to finish our first house and present it to the family but were sad to say goodbye after the past 3 days of bonding and building relationships. We spent most of the day finishing the roof. After finally finishing as the sun began to set we presented the house to Senorita Juana and celebrated the inauguration with chips and cookies on the floor of their new home. Several members of our team gave speeches thanking her for opening her home to us and allowing us to help her. It had been such an amazing experience for us to get to know her and her family and work to construct their new home. She responded and thanked us for all of our hard work and explained how fortunate she felt to receive this new beautiful home.Image

Because today marked the transition period from one construction project to our new one, after dinner we all gathered in the cafeteria where in the middle of the room there were different items used throughout the past couple days for our construction. For example, there was a mini hut with boots, tools, and food, along with other items that together were meant to represent our adventure thus far. The lights were off and Sofí spoke which gave us the space to reflect silently as candles burned in the center of the room in honor of each family that we were helping to build a new home for, each with a unique history and unique circumstances. This moment of pause allows all of the volunteers to take a minute to reflect on the fortune, opportunities and advantages in life that they have. Sofí then sang a beautiful song to the group and we were given time to write something meaningful such as a phrase, idea or thought on pieces of paper in the middle of the room or just meditate on the experience thus far. This moment of refection was meant to be a regroup before we start our experience with the new family in the morning.

Day 5 – Hump Day

This morning we slept in a bit waking up at 7 rather than 6 because we had had a late night the night before and that extra hour was much needed. We had a bit of a relaxed morning and headed off to the site to finish the walls and put the roof on making it look more and more like a real house. The roof turned out to be much more time consuming than I was expecting. We had to use large 2x4s to lift the roof up and over in order to sit on top of the walls passing them off to someone up top. There were about 15 sections of the roof that had to all be put up and nailed together one by one. Several people were sitting on the walls or on the roof as they hammered in wood framings or the insolated panels as the rest of us were working on installing the 3 windows and the 2 doors. It was finally starting to all come together.

ImageImageImageToday was long and exhausting and ended with our whole groups laying down in the house with the roof unfinished all huddled to stay warm and looking up and the beautiful, clear, star-filled sky. Juanita, the 14-year-old daughter, came to the open door frame and asked if she could enter. One of my team members said come in but Juanita was hesitant asking again if it was okay for her to enter. I responded with, of course! This is your house! She finally had enough courage to come in and sit down next to me with her little sister sitting on her lap. Maria once again asked me what my name was. Then for the first time she continued the conversation by asking if I had a mom. I said yes and she asked what her name is. She asked where I was from, still confused after several conversations we had already had where I explained that I was from a different country. I asked her and her sister if they knew where the United Sates was and both said they had no idea. The girls were fascinated by my camera from the first day on site and when it ran out of batteries I had brought my iPhone to continue to take pictures. Phones were discouraged on site so the teenagers wouldn’t be tempted to upload pictures and chat with their friends back at home and were encouraged rather to be present in the constructions. I was the exception, as everyone knew that I couldn’t be contacting anyone with my phone here in Chile. I asked the girls if they would like to see a map to see where I was from. They both said yes please, so I got out my phone and opened up the map feature on the photos. Since I had taken pictures in Santiago, in Freirina and from my house in LA there were pins sticking in all of these places making it very easy to show them. I zoomed out and showed a map of the world, wondering how many times they might have seen a map. I zoomed in to where we were now and explained that we were in the North of Chile then zoomed out again moving us even more north to the United Stated and explained that I was from California, on the coast and from a city called Los Angeles. They seemed very fascinated and were fully engaged as I explained that you needed to take an airplane for about 8 hours to get there. Maria then asked if I had a picture of my mom with me. As I started scanning through my photos to find a picture of my mom and me to show her, I started to feel more and more uncomfortable. I was already uneasy as I considered the likelihood of them ever getting to ride on an airplane or having the opportunity to visit a place like the United States. Starting from the beginning of my photo album, I scanned through pictures of my high school prom and graduation, pictures of concerts and music festivals I had been to, pictures of me dressed up and smiling with friends going to various parties and events in college and visiting beautiful places during summer vacations, I couldn’t help but reflect on all of these events; experiences that these two girls might never get a chance to participate in. Who knows if they would even get to wear a cap and gown and graduate from high school let alone get to experience all the fun I have had in college and living on my own these past couple years. I finally found a picture of my mom and me and opened it up, Maria exclaimed “que linda!” – “how pretty!” and it warmed my heart. Even thought she may not be able to experience any of the fortunate opportunities I have been blessed with in my life, I know we still have one important thing in common: We both have mother’s who love us with all of their hearts and would give everything they had for us. ImageWhen we arrived back at the school everyone entered the kitchen for another surprise activity. None of the staff members were participating so as I tried to sneak by with just watching, one of the facilitators caught me and thoroughly duct taped my hands together so I would have no choice but to participate. My partner had a scarf tied around her eyes and we both sat down with plates of pasta in front of us. The rules were then explained. The blindfolded person’s job was to feed both themselves and their partners as the person with their hands together could only give verbal instructions. It was a bit of a challenge with my poor language abilities but we luckily made it out with only a few casualties. After eating I was helped by one of my group members to slowly remove the tape from my hands when the facilitator who had taped them together came over and ripped the remaining tape off quickly and painfully giving me a hug and apologizing afterwards but leaving burning, red marks on my hands. I forgave him anyways. We all sat down in a circle on the floor as the facilitators lead a big group discussion about what it was like to be restrained and have to work together to eat dinner. They then explained to us that the blindfold and hands tied together were meant to represent our experience working with the poor as we blindly help people who may be constrained by their limiting circumstances. Everyone by now was comfortable enough with the group to share and address one another by name.

Today was the hump day, day 5 of the 10 day experience and I caught myself several times throughout the day counting down the days until I would be boarding the plane to head back to my house. I was exhausted and feeling extremely dirty and tired and dreaming of home cooking and a warm, cozy bed to sleep in. Today I thought a lot about the Chilean pride that I was experiencing and trying to think of something in America that was as unifying as an experience as this. I think this experience is one that many high school students take part in here in Chile. This type of work allows them to come together and work toward a creating a better future toward a more just country. It allows the students to live in conditions, with no shower, sleeping on the floor and eating cheap food that might be somewhat similar to how the poor families live every day of their lives. I think this is a wonderful experience for the students to not only feel a connection to each other and to their country but also to learn about some of the issues that persist in their country. It is a very unique opportunity that benefits both the volunteers and the families that they work with.