Growing up on the Canadian prairies, I belonged to our local 4-H group for many years. 4-H, so called because of the 4-Hs members pledge – head, hands, heart and health – is a global network of youth organizations with the goal to develop citizenship, leadership, responsibility and life skills of youth through experiential learning programs and a positive youth development approach. Through 4-H, I learned how to take care of and ride a horse, made great friends at the summer camp, practiced public speaking at the annual speech competition and always recited the pledge at each meeting:

I pledge my head to clearer thinking,
my heart to greater loyalty,
my hands to larger service,
and my health to better living,
for my club, my community,
my country and my world.

This pledge has carried me into my adult life with my volunteer work with another organization – Habitat for Humanity (HFH). Through HFH, I have now participated in 12 Global Village builds and each one has been rewarding and different. The time flies by on a build and it's a perfect combination of my love for travelling, interest in fundraising and philanthropy and deeper commitment to 'be useful'. A service vacation with Habitat ticks all of the boxes.

My most recent build was in Middle Eastern country, Jordan. I joined a Global Village international team of 14 volunteers from different countries and, together, we worked for a week on a home for a Jordanian family of four. Having previously spent a year in Jordan, teaching in the capital city of Amman at the International Academy of Amman, this was an exciting chance to return and to give back to a country that had generously hosted me. Jordan is an amazing country full of history, natural geographical wonders, hospitable people and delicious food and I jumped at the opportunity to return.

Upon arrival, we travelled to the north-west corner of Jordan, in a small village near Umm Al Yanaba’a Aljunm, by the Ajlun Forest Reserve. Here, the team joined a local Community Based Organization (CBO) that works in partnership with HFH. In Jordan, three events have shaped the current housing situation: economic stagnation, the rise in cost of living and the mass influx of refugees in the last three decades. For this build, we worked with a family of four; parents and two small children. They were currently living with the husband's father and with extended family members. The parents wanted a place to call their own, so approached the CBO for information and had been working with them to organize the mortgage and paperwork. They, and extended family members, worked each day on the build, in addition to their regular jobs and while they didn't speak a lot of English, everyone understood each other just fine.

Before joining a Global Village build, volunteers contribute a fee that goes towards building materials, as well as food, accommodation, insurance and transportation to and from the build site. The organization then works with the family in need on an interest-free mortgage. The family is expected to put in a set amount of 'sweat equity' hours and also receive education on budgeting and making the mortgage payments. The goal is to build strength, stability and self-reliance through shelter. I feel this covered the 'head' part of the 4-H motto; understanding how assistance is provided to the families and learning about the different layers of planning involved is complex. The challenges of 'giving' and how to best serve those in need is a difficult issue. There is no one 'fix-all' method, yet I feel Habitat is transparent and sound in its strategy, with the goal of providing a safe and decent place to live.

Now to use my hands and be useful: the house building style was cement blocks, so the team spent several days moving 10kg cement bricks in a chain, laying a brick, making cement for the brick, adjusting the brick and then moving more bricks. Habitat employs a local professional tradesman to oversee and guide the project. After witnessing him coordinating us all, I feel it takes a special person willing to work with adult volunteers and guide their enthusiasm into something constructive. Despite having volunteered on previous builds, there is no experience required and a lot of the work is pure 'grunt' – shoveling cement, carrying buckets of water, moving bricks. This provided a sweaty, but refreshing break from my usual pace of life. Using my hands (aside from typing on the computer or phone) works a different part of my brain.

I stayed in locally provided accommodation and the evening meals were enjoyed in the community. Every evening, I walked (usually in the dark, in the small local town) to find the way to a local's home where a feast was waiting for the team. Many of the meals were shared mezze style – hummus, olives, tabbouleh, soups, salads, breads, sweets and plenty of tea and coffee. These meals were donated and hosted by local members of the community who were grateful for the support of their area and wanted to help the building efforts. This was a chance for the team to interact with the locals and learn more about their daily lives. The food was delicious and generous. This definitely ticked the 'health' part of the 4-H motto! In addition to a lot of local fresh vegetables, the team also had falafel wraps, zaatar spice, mint tea and the national Jordanian dish, mansaf – a highly addictive plate of yogurty chicken or lamb served with rice.

The build concluded with a home dedication ceremony. This part filled the 'heart' requirement – seeing a family with a chance for them to have their own home, where they can raise their children and be together was a heart-warming moment. I stood at the building site, surrounded by both the exterior and interior walls that I had helped put up in the week and felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. The house will take another one to two teams to complete and the local electrical and plumbing tradespeople will come to work on the house. The family should be in their home by summer!

Post-build, Habitat generously organized some sightseeing in Jordan, including visits to Jerash (an ancient Roman city with a coliseum), Mount Nebo, the River Jordan, the Dead Sea and the famous world heritage site of Petra – the rose-city. The history of Jordan is amazing – Amman, the capital, has been inhabited for over 9,000 years. If you are interested in history, architecture, food, natural geography or culture, this should be your next destination. It was refreshing to have a few days away from the building and to look back on what I had accomplished with the team. Using my head, heart, health and hands on a holiday allowed me to come back feeling refreshed and revived. Give it a try – you won't be disappointed.

Find out more:
Habitat for Humanity strives to give a 'hand-up' not a 'hand out' to families working towards a home and believe that everyone has a right to a safe, decent housing. More information about your own service vacation or volunteer build can be found at www.habitat.org. Look under "Global Village Builds" for a list of international destinations and dates. Habitat builds in over 100 countries, all year long.

Laura Coulter is a globe-trotting journalist, event planner, teacher and fundraiser. She enjoys hosting fabulous events that give back to her community and the causes in which she believes. Laura created and hosts the long-running Your Clothes Friend Swap. She also volunteers her time to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. As contributor to the Living in Singapore nightlife section, Laura continues to search for the perfect martini.

Photo courtesy of Laura Coulter

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