My first introduction to Habitat for Humanity was when I first met Jodi, our Manager of Volunteer Services, at a nonprofit job fair at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in 2012. Jodi’s welcoming and engaging smile is what brought me to her table, and what ultimately led me to becoming a regular volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Her genuine kindness was an accurate portrayal of what I came to expect from my volunteer experience with the Greater Fox Cities Area Habitat for Humanity. The staff, volunteers, and supporters all seemed to have a compassion, generosity, and drive that led them to this affiliate. From my introduction to the history of Habitat for Humanity during orientation, to the knowledge I gained from regularly volunteering at the Habitat ReStore, along with other volunteers opportunities, I gained an appreciation for not just what the Greater Fox Cities Habitat for Humanity does, but especially how they do it. Their mission and values resonated with me, and I was impressed with the leadership and accountability shown. It was after four years of volunteering, and two rejections to roles with Habitat for Humanity that I found my fit as their Rock the Block Outreach Coordinator in January of 2017. Through my role, I get the privilege of meeting amazing neighbors throughout the Greater Fox Cities area. I’m able to share with them the opportunity to make needed repairs to the exterior of their homes affordable. Seeing a community come together during Rock the Block events to help beautify an already great neighborhood, by increasing property values and building the equity back into the homes of the owners is not only rewarding, but fulfilling. It’s encouraging to be surrounded by people who are coming out to be a part of a solution, and show love to their neighbors. I’ve had the honor of meeting some really amazing neighbors and been touched to hear their stories. Thank you letting me share mine.
l was twelve years old when my family immigrated to America from Oranjemund, Namibia. My father was a native South African and my mother native Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe). Growing up my father was in a management position, working for what is now known as Namdeb (the operating company out of Oranjemund, or CDM (De Beers Consolidated Diamond Mines) as we knew it. My mother was a school teacher at Oranjemund Private School, which was a respected profession. Both my parents are well educated and we were privileged to live an upper middle-class lifestyle. This included our extracurricular activities like piano lessons and intramural sports, including access to different community clubs. Oranjemund is a small oasis essentially run by the company that provides the majority of jobs for that town. It was a secure town with virtually no crime.
We wore uniforms to school, raised our hands if we wished to speak in class, earned ‘merit badges’ for excellence in academic performance, and had prefects-the revered peer role model position. World geography was taught at an early age, and learning a second language was required as part of your education. When Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990, it was a memorable celebration with free t-shirts showcasing our flag and candy (or sweets as we’d call them). My father, being South African had concerns that preference in job positions would be given to native Namibians. In addition, there was fear (unfounded we would later find) that there may be political tensions that would create difficulty for family members who were born in South Africa (myself included).
For those reasons, we immigrated to the United States of America where some of my mother’s sisters had already immigrated to. Our lives were reduced to what we could carry in two suitcases. We were met at the airport in Chicago with jackets, gloves, scarfs, boots, and other items we’d never needed to own or had use for. It was our first time seeing snow! Contrary to my parent’s insistence otherwise, I was convinced Disneyworld was synonymous with America. Their attempts to explain that Disneyworld was in America, but we would not be going there was dismissed. The realization of this truth hit me quickly when I understood that we were now ‘poor’ which was akin to having leprosy to some. The exchange rate did not favor my parent’s life savings, and their accolades weren’t recognized in this new country. Due to the heavy accents, we were often not heard or understood.
My father found whatever odd jobs he could, working from sun up to sun down summers in an ice cream truck. Not a salesman, he’d come home with Tupperware dishes of coins and used books that he’d accept from neighborhood kids who couldn’t pay for ice-cream. My mother found an entry level call center position to keep us afloat. Attending public school where you could wear whatever you wanted, I learned that ‘like’ was used as a filler in in sentences, wearing donated clothing wasn’t cool, and it was acceptable to openly show disrespect to your teacher. Daily being interrogated with questions like: If you’re from Africa, why aren’t you black? Did you live in a hut? Did you eat worms? Why do you talk funny? At that age, I was intensely shy and self-conscience which weren’t the best tools to handle the natural curiosity of children.
I distinctly remember celebrating my 13th birthday in this new country, when I came home from school that day to “surprise” and a beautiful homemade cake with a few balloons that were lovingly put together from my family. It almost made me cry because I knew we couldn’t afford it. We had an old donated lamp in the living room that sat atop a cardboard box covered with a tablecloth, and this was very different from the matching furniture and wooden table we had growing up. My mother was very creative in feeding a family of six, often making ‘stew.’ This was a creative mix of whatever little bit of meat we could acquire, with a mixture of whatever vegetables she could use with a base of a watery gravy to fill us up. We were gifted with garbage bags from a local church that had a variety of rejected clothing items for us to wear.
Looking back, I’m grateful for this and other experiences we went through because through it all I knew I had a family who loved me unconditionally, I never went hungry, was never without shelter, and I was never alone. That’s not the experience for others who are working hard and looking for a better life. Our family moved by choice, with family support, where those refugees fleeing for their lives didn’t get the chance to make that choice- it was forced on them. I have nothing to complain about, as I’ve been blessed beyond compare to have great people in my life who have loved, supported, and encouraged me. I have more than what I need and I always have. I don’t value material things because they are empty and don’t last. What lasts are kind words spoken, the smile shared, and the love shown to a stranger. I’m honored that each day I come into work, I get to be somewhere that provides opportunity by giving a hand up. This opportunity is offered to anyone who wants better for themselves: immigrants, refugees, everyone.
When I get to come in to work each day with dedicated individuals who are working hard to support our mission of bringing “people together to build homes, communities and hope,” I’m reminded of how much I have to be grateful for. Volunteers that sacrifice their time and talents in so many different capacities to attain “a world where everyone has a decent place to live.” Donors who believe in and support that belief through tangible and sustainable gifts. Homebuyers, Rock the Block participants, Home Repair families who partner with us to be part of breaking the cycle of poverty and are empowered to take action to be a part of their housing solution. I’m inspired and touched daily by the people I get to meet and learn from. My hope is that we continue to build each other up to truly “be the change we wish to see in the world”. Thank you for letting me share in this adventure with you.