For Spring Break, We…Helped Build a House in Laredo, Texas
While some spring breakers frolicked on the beach, seven students from the College of William and Mary in Virginia opted for an “alternative” trip to help build a home in Laredo, Texas as part of a Habitat for Humanity project.
Habitat’s Collegiate Challenge this year involved nearly 8,000 students, volunteering nationwide in 195 communities to promote homeownership for low-income families.
W&M’s annual trip is organized by its “Branch Out” organization, which sends students on regional, national, and international alternative break trips, including the Habitat opportunity, according to Melody Porter, W&M’s associate director for community engagement. She explains that “each of these opportunities allows students to partner with local communities to achieve community goals, while gaining the identity of active citizen — someone who prioritizes community in their life choices.”
What entices these students to give back, while their peers are kicking back? We spoke to this year’s W&M team leader for the Habitat site, Tyler Brent, a 22-year-old senior majoring in government and Chinese studies, to find out.
The Home Story: What motivated you to give up your spring break to help build homes in South Texas?
TB: While many Branch Out trips are doing incredible work internationally, we thought that working in Laredo would be a unique opportunity to give back within the United States. Our group met every week starting in January to learn more about the social justice issues we would be encountering while in Laredo including immigration, affordable housing, poverty, and homelessness. Our group would read and discuss articles on the issues, watch documentaries, and attend speaking events on campus related to these topics. We wanted to give back while also learning more about immigration policy, so Laredo was the perfect choice as it is situated on the U.S.-Mexico border.
THS: What were your goals in being part of the program?
TB: As one of the leaders of the trip and a returning member of the organization, I wanted to help my group get the most out of the experience as possible. Every evening after our day of work, we would have a group reflection to discuss what we learned that day and how we might be more effective volunteers. I wanted to show my group how meaningful this work can be and to hopefully inspire them to want to continue giving back after the trip had finished.
THS: Was any special training involved?
TB: As the trip leader, I attended weekly training seminars led by Branch Out for the entire fall semester leading up to our trip. During the training, we learned about facilitating group discussions regarding social justice issues, what to do in case of emergencies, and discussed issues surrounding alternative volunteer breaks such as “voluntourism” and how to “do no harm” while giving back to a community which we’re not from.
Most of the students on the trip had no prior construction experience. Habitat employs construction workers with years of experience who are great at working with student volunteers and teaching them how to use all of the tools and build houses.
THS: What were the most challenging aspects?
TB: Throughout the week, my entire group wished they could do more to help. On the news, there are always debates about immigration policy in the United States, but it can be frustrating to hear policy makers make decisions even though they have never been to the border. After working with communities in Laredo, you realize that this issue is much more complex and nuanced, and it is challenging to think of the best solutions to the myriad injustices in the area.
THS: What was a typical day like?
TB: While on the Habitat work site, our site leader encouraged all of us to try every single saw and power tool available. Every day was different because we were at a different stage of the building process. In addition to our volunteer work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with Habitat, our group also volunteered with the South Texas Food Bank and with Bethany House, a homeless shelter in Laredo.
THS: Did you meet the family whose home you were building?
TB: One of the families was a single mother and her son. She visited the Habitat ReStore in Laredo. An employee there suggested that she apply for a Habitat house. She initially thought that it would be too expensive, but they encouraged her to apply, and now she is almost ready to move into her new home. When someone applies to receive a house with Habitat, they must put in 500 hours of “sweat equity.” This means that volunteers work with the family that will be living in the house side-by-side on the construction site.
THS: What was the neighborhood/city like?
TB: Laredo, situated on the U.S.-Mexico border next to the Rio Grande river, has a unique “Tex-Mex” culture. The population is 96 percent Hispanic, and the majority of the people we met would effortlessly code-switch between English and Spanish. In many locales, Spanish was the dominant language.
The City of Laredo gave Habitat a plot of land, where the organization started building their second community. Habitat was finishing its 10th house in this community, and has now built 100 houses in Laredo.
THS: What advice would you pass along to someone who wants to get involved?
TB: For someone interested in an alternative break, go into the experience with an open mind. One might have many preconceived notions about the social justice issue at hand, but try to get rid of these during the experience. You will learn so much more by listening to the stories people have to tell in the communities you are working in. For someone who feels like they might miss out on the “traditional spring break” experience, know that alternative breaks of service can also be a lot of fun while you get to learn about a social issue and get to build friendships in unique communities.
THS: How has the experience changed you?
TB: My experience volunteering with Habitat in Laredo for the past two years has made me more passionate about service and made me realize that I should be more involved in my own community. I would like to work for a non-profit upon graduation that is as innovative and involved in the community as Habitat.
Elizabeth Ann Haverty is a recent graduate of William and Mary who volunteered as a co-leader for the Branch Out Laredo trip in 2014.