Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program: Lessons I’ve Learned After 10 Years

Barbara McCarthy and her friends | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program

Barbara McCarthy, School Library Media Specialist at OLS School, with her friends, Emmanuel and Dylan in Guatemala as part of Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program.

In 2008, a friend of mine was invited to go to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program. She wanted to go but was nervous to travel on her own and she wanted a companion. I had often thought about volunteering with Habitat before, so this seemed like a great opportunity.

We went to Zacapa in Guatemala – dry, dusty, and hotter than you could believe, but it was a terrific experience and I’ve been hooked ever since. This coming March, I will embark on my 10th trip back to Guatemala.

Why do I volunteer for Habitat for Humanity in Guatemala every year?

Oscar and his puppies | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program

Simple. The people. The Guatemalan people are so welcoming and friendly. I have been to the Usumatlán Colony in Zacapa five times – there are now over 100 Habitat houses in the community and I feel like I belong to five families there.

Each time we build, the families work alongside us (there is a 100-hour “sweat equity” requirement to get a Habitat home), and even though we are only there for a week, we spend 8 or 9 hours together each day and we grow really close.

Most of the families we work with have little or no English and I started off with no Spanish, but with smiles, hand-gestures and hugs, we make our feelings known.

Each year when we return, the families all come to greet us. They invite us to bring our lunch to their houses so they can show us the improvements they’ve made. They are so proud of their homes and take such good care of them. Little by little, they add flooring, tiles, appliances, and furniture – turning the bare concrete buildings into cozy homes.

Volunteering with friends and family

Friends and family make volunteering fun. | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program

After my first year, I knew it was something I would continue to do for as long as possible. And each year, I try to bring someone new with me so they can discover the joy of volunteering with Habitat’s Global Village Program, too.

Over the years, I have brought many friends, my sons, my husband, 9 adult Our Lady of Sorrows parishioners, and 8 young OLS School alumni – most of whom have come more than once. Most volunteers find it a little overwhelming at first, but each of them has found the experience to be very rewarding, though some found the extreme heat to be tough.

Some of the areas we build in are very poor, and the children run around the building site barefoot or in flip-flops. Many children are very skinny, and their families are struggling. It really makes an impression.

After being there for the first time myself, I found that my desire for “stuff” really went down. I felt that there were much more important things in life and found myself being drawn to volunteer with other organizations too, just to feel like I was doing something worthwhile with my free time. But my favorite is definitely Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program.

The importance of fundraising

Many hands make light work. | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program

I like to bring young people with us as I believe it’s an invaluable experience for them to see how the “other half” lives, but the cost can be prohibitive. Habitat for Humanity volunteers pay to go on these building trips. We are also required to make a “donation” towards the work of Habitat in the country we go to, usually the same amount as the cost.

For example, it costs us $800 each for in-country expenses and we have to donate another $800 to the Guatemalan affiliate of Habitat for Humanity. That, combined with the cost of flights, makes it quite expensive to attend, roughly $2,000 each. That is one of the reasons we fundraise to try to cover the donation portion of the trip.

Sometimes different families or companies sponsor us so we can reduce the cost for each member of the group. Last year, we secured a $10K donation from Benchmark Construction Inc., which allowed us to bring some college students for free – they just had to cover their flights. Each of them would like to return but will need help paying their expenses. Our next trip to Guatemala is booked from March 10-18, 2018 and we hope to raise another $10K so we can bring some more college students with us.

8 lessons I’ve learned from my volunteer trips to Guatemala

Barbara and friends | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program

1. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Making the decision to go on my first Habitat build was one of the best and most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made. Try it – you won’t regret it.

2. A smile is worth a thousand words.

The first woman I built for had no English and I had no Spanish, but her smile told us everything she wanted to say, and her hugs were so tight that her emotions came through clearly.

3. No job is too small or unimportant.

Teamwork | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village ProgramThere are a variety of tasks available. It may seem that laying the block is the most important, but tying rebar, cutting wire, sifting sand, or mixing concrete is just as important. Each task contributes to the house, and without any one of them, the house would not be as sturdy/safe.

4. Don’t be embarrassed to speak the language – even if you’re not good at it.

Your effort will be appreciated, no matter how poor your grammar is! Even if you just start with por favor and gracias, that will be fine.

5. We don’t need power tools to build a house.

Mixing concrete | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village ProgramIn Guatemala, all the work is done by hand. We even learn how to split cinder blocks with a machete!

6. Be adventurous!

You may come across foods you’ve never eaten before and that look weird, or activities you’ve never tried. You may love them or hate them – but first you’ve got to try them.

7. Everything is valuable.

Working together | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village ProgramI’ve seen masons pull nails out of scaffold, hammer them straight, and use them again, whereas in the U.S., we would just discard them as useless.

8. Put yourself out there.

You may be nervous or apprehensive, but remember, everyone else probably feels the same way. Smile, extend your hand, and say hola!


Interested in helping out with our next trip to Guatemala?

If you would like to donate, or if you would like to volunteer with us in Guatemala – we would greatly appreciate your help. Our goal this year is to raise $10,000, and we can use all the help we can get.

Please visit our Habitat for Humanity – Zacapa 2018 webpage for more details. Thanks!

Barbara and the team | OLS School - Habitat for Humanity Global Village Program

Barbara and the rest of the Guatemala Habitat for Humanity Global Village team.


Barbara McCarthy Administrator
Mrs. McCarthy became the School Library Media Specialist at Our Lady of Sorrows School in 2015 after designing the new Library Media Center. Prior to that, she taught computer classes to all grades at OLS School for five years. Before becoming a member of the faculty, Mrs. McCarthy was the school’s Athletic Director for six years. She continues to be active in school sports as the faculty representative on the school sports committee, and as coach of the JV Girls Basketball Team. When not at OLS, Mrs. McCarthy likes to travel as much as possible, particularly to her native Ireland. In addition to volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, she is also very involved in Scouting and has volunteered as a STEM Quest staff member at the last three National Scout Jamborees. You can e-mail Mrs. McCarthy at belmccarthy@ourladyofsorrowsschool.org.
Posted in Parent Tips | Leave a reply

About Barbara McCarthy

Mrs. McCarthy became the School Library Media Specialist at Our Lady of Sorrows School in 2015 after designing the new Library Media Center. Prior to that, she taught computer classes to all grades at OLS School for five years. Before becoming a member of the faculty, Mrs. McCarthy was the school’s Athletic Director for six years. She continues to be active in school sports as the faculty representative on the school sports committee, and as coach of the JV Girls Basketball Team. When not at OLS, Mrs. McCarthy likes to travel as much as possible, particularly to her native Ireland. In addition to volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, she is also very involved in Scouting and has volunteered as a STEM Quest staff member at the last three National Scout Jamborees. You can e-mail Mrs. McCarthy at belmccarthy@ourladyofsorrowsschool.org.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *