Habitat’s Extraordinary Englishman

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Dave reminded me of that former NBA star, Bill Walton. (courtesy of ballerball.com)

I first met Dave last January when I went to inspect Habitat’s reconstruction projects in Bantayan Island. A tall, skinny guy with rather unkempt long hair, David Wilson looked like a smaller version of one of my favorite basketball gurus of old, Bill Walton during his younger, hippie days. I was almost tempted to put on my basketball jersey and challenge him to a game of hoops. But then I realized I was no longer the young speedy point guard I had used to be decades ago.

Dave was a walk-in volunteer, and he had indicated his desire to join our team in far-away Bantayan Island, one of the small islands in northern Cebu, which was devastated by Typhoon Haiyan. he would be assigned in one of our relocation sites, in Sulangan, Bantayan. Conditions there were less than ideal, hence his choice was a pleasant surprise to me.  Honestly, I was wondering if this Englishman would be able to last, with the harsh conditions in Bantayan. Making matters even more difficult, the first impression he left among the female staffers upon his arrival wasn’t too good either.

But to my pleasant surprise, he stayed on, proved me and my Bantayan staffers wrong, and endeared himself not just to the workers, but the beneficiary families who eagerly came to help out as well. I had expected  Dave to be gone after a few days, but every time I’d visit, I’d see him there, under the heat of the scorching sun, with his signature bandana, covered with sweat and grime, looking exhausted yet never dispirited, and armed only with his simple smile.

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David learned to eat with the workers and the home partners.

 And even when there were other foreign volunteer groups around, he would refuse to join them. He was more content taking his midday and lunch breaks with the regular workers. Describing himself, he admitted he was “not much of a conventional man, and somewhat more of a free spirit.” But I could see, just by talking to him, that he had strong family values, and had a clear sympathetic streak for those who have less in life.

Grudgingly, I began to admire the guy. This dude had a serious case of wanderlust. He had made one significant stop in India, where he did social work with the Sisters of Charity, whose work with the sick and the disabled is world-renowned.  He left inspired and ready to take on the world.

But after a while, he started feeling an emptiness inside once again.  “After travelling for almost a year, I found myself losing my sense of purpose. Without purpose, you can lose your mind and question your own existence. It brought me a sense of awareness that a major factor of travelling is that you cannot travel on the same path twice in the same way,  in order to get more depth out of your journey, you must give yourself. To not just travel, but to have an emotional journey.”

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He wanted to be treated just like one of the ordinary workers.

Dave related his experience in volunteering for Habitat:  ” As all things go as we grow, giving can be as rewarding as receiving. If we are lucky enough to take from this world, then we must also give back. We must not be so self-centered. And the people of this world that have the least, who go through the most hardship, we learn that maybe it might be them that share the most.”

“Working with the people on an emotional level is, in fact, the best way. Volunteering should be done from the heart. That is the only way to really learn as an outsider. And the more you put in, the more you are rewarded. The more you work, and with the dedication you give whilst also giving your heart, the more you emotionally receive, including the love you will receive in return from the people whose lives you touched significantly by volunteering.”

“As a traveler from the West, there is a great deal to learn from the hardships of poverty, sickness, the effects of natural disasters, but most of all, the human spirit. It is so easy to ignore some of the other problems facing the world, being tucked away in the excesses of the Western world, even though we also have poverty in our doorstep.”

Dave believes that while donating is greatly needed and commendable, it does not give the same perspective as volunteering one’s time, energy and physical resources.  “Volunteering is an emotional experience that can provide a profound effect on one’s heart and mind. Volunteering is, in fact, responsible for some of the best experiences of my life, and something where everybody connected to the project walks away with great benefit.” Dave actually did not intend to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity Philippines. He was just fortunate to meet a Habitat employee, Karla Jean Abraham, by chance. Karla would talk to him endlessly about Habitat’s work and advocacy – to build houses for those who cannot afford a decent place to live – and this would convince him, and as he would later admit: “this changed my journey here positively in ways I could not even imagine.” His orientation with Habitat work was in a project in Quezon City, where he worked along with the project beneficiaries and the victims of poverty. But it was in Bantayan Island where the magic and the transformation happened to him, “where you can feel the Philippines’ mighty heart.”

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David developed a bond with the construction workers in the project.

“Sure, it got exhausting at times, but I had no problem with it. I never was tired of working. The feeling of doing something positive, of doing good is truly addictive, and with the colorful individual characters you are constantly in contact with, the vibes in the area are also always amounting to good strong positive energy. One of the main things that really keep you going is having the beneficiaries – home partners as we refer to them – on site. You can not ignore the importance and greatness of the project when you can see exactly where it is going, meeting the beautiful families who have lived through such devastation, yet remain so positive. These people might well be the most emotionally and mentally strong people I have ever met. They might have lost so much, but their heart remains intact. I cannot imagine it possible to break such strong hearts.” “Even with all the travelling and places I have been to, I find that my mind and heart have never felt so open and as one, whilst working alongside these amazing people. I genuinely have never seen any of them having a bad day – they will never show you if they are feeling down, they never seem to stress or have an ounce of negative emotion or temper nor any sign of anger! Just warm smiles, that greet you even during the hardest and hottest day, always willing to share the little of what they have, or break any frustration you are having with a warm gesture or help. This also goes to the children that are always running free with nature – laughing and playing, sharing. Never a fight or a tear spilled, except for one tiny tot that burst into tears everytime she saw the crazy white man dancing about on his break. But she slowly warmed to me more towards the end of my time, as I waved at her from a distance and she followed and waved back, until my arm felt it would drop off.”

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David played foreman to the kids there who were eager to help out.

Sure, there were times during the hard, hot days when the sun would make conditions difficult, but he would always stay focused, simply by thinking of how the houses he was building would benefit the children and their families. He would reinvigorate himself with the thought that the kids and their families would be safe in their stronger and more resilient homes.

Dave worked a total of 320 hours in the Habitat community in Bantayan Island. He worked with the local team on 15 duplex units (30 houses), and himself laying 2112 hollow blocks. This, according to Architect Kris Faeldonia, was enough to construct 2 duplexes out of the 15! “I can honestly say work has never felt so rewarding and fun as the experience I have had with Habitat for Humanity Philippines, 3D construction and Loloy Amon, one of the best bosses I have ever had as a foreman. I have learned a lot through them as a team.

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Dave proudly built an equivalent of 2 complete units for the people of Bantayan.

But apart from the construction work, David learned much from the Filipino crew with whom he became quite close with. He learned a bit of the local  dialect, making him a hit among the kids. He also learned how to sing, something quite common among Filipinos. On Sundays, they would have karaoke sessions and share some beers before getting ready for the next week’s work. This, he felt, contributed to lighten the mood. So that, despite the difficulties, “they would remain in such high spirits, and won’t let life break them. Their zest for life and love for each other and humanity is always so apparent. From their first welcome, I never felt like a stranger and even after I left, I felt I gained so many friends.  I have never seen such beautiful community spirit in my life.” 

Dave also had a shorter stint in Bohol, another island that had been the victim of a different type of disaster – an earthquake. A different environment, a different challenge, but the people’s demeanor remained the same.  There was patience and perseverance, there was so much sharing around, there was music and laughter.

No matter. There were songs and smiles a-plenty.
There were songs and smiles a-plenty.

“The shyness in the Filipino caused by a lack of spoken communication can always be broken with laughter. The genuine laughter shared is a big part of my memory, and although I didn’t have the chance to build such great relationships during my time in Bohol, I did what I could in the  little time I had and I would not change a thing, It was also nothing but a positive and completely enjoyable experience. Bohol’s hospitality might even have raised the bar.”

“The Philippines is a continuous revelation of surprise. I just wish I had more time, as I felt I could have done more,  but unfortunately, I had to get back to my own family for another wedding.”

“A very special thanks to Habitat for Humanity Philippines for being the reason these projects are going on, for welcoming me to join in. I don’t believe anyone who has an emotional journey through volunteering ever walks away the same as they arrive. These experiences do stay with us. I would like to see more western programs for younger people in the west to volunteer before leaving school to help eradicate social problems we have in our countries.”

Dave’s stint as a volunteer has sparked a positive change in him. He states: “We are all connected. And humanity is very precious. The experience seems to do everyone involved a world of good. And I am very grateful and honored to have been part of the Philippine team. I look forward to visiting you all again in time.”

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