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April 1999


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Real life 101

Building houses with Habitat for Humanity or spending a year teaching children in Namibia can enrich your education beyond measure

by Camille Dodero

From 10,000 feet away, the house could be mistaken for an anthill: it's a convex mound with creatures scuttling along its slopes and circling its sandy base.

From 100 feet away, it's a tan duplex sitting on a hill on Bower Street, in Quincy. It's under construction, the social insects grazing its frame are people, and their waggling consists of hammering, sawing, and digging. Two of them are on the roof, dressed in winter jackets and work boots. Knees bent and backs flat against the inclined bulkhead, they're positioned as if they're about to do sit-ups in an aerial aerobics class.

From the dirt below, a voice teases, "Hey, no lying down on the job."

Like beetles on their backs, the roofers wriggle around as if they're trying to flip over. "Hey, give us a break," one finally responds. "We've already nailed six nails today."

Six nails since 9 a.m. And it's noon.

For a carpenter or a construction worker, six nails in three hours would be a very meager yield. But these "roofers" aren't skilled carpenters charging hourly rates for their work. They're volunteers helping South Shore Habitat for Humanity (SSHH) dress a house. And for Linda Murphy and Barbara Vega -- who work as nurses in their day jobs -- six nails in three hours is quite respectable.

In 1976 Habitat for Humanity International joined the fight against poverty with a lofty ambition -- to eliminate all substandard housing from the world. But it wasn't until eight years later that the organization distinguished itself nationally, when former president Jimmy Carter embarked on a weeklong Habitat project in New York City. Loyalty to its mission, as well as Carter's 10-finger PR lift, has helped the ministry establish more than 1500 US affiliates during its 22-year lifespan.

In its 13-year existence, SSHH has helped more than 20 families upgrade their living conditions. Administrators field donations of both land and money and oversee the building process, but none of SSHH's projects would be possible without the efforts of weekend volunteers like Linda Murphy and Barbara Vega.

"I learned a lot today," says Murphy, after dismounting from the roof. "This reminded me of a simple lesson you learn in kindergarten: if you open your mind and cooperate, you can learn how to do just about anything."

Usually, volunteerism doesn't focus on educating the volunteer. In theory, it's an altruistic endeavor: giving up time and energy to benefit a cause, institution, or group of people that wouldn't otherwise receive the help. But Murphy's "I learned a lot" isn't an unusual sentiment for volunteer workers. Often, in fact, the benefits of volunteer service are reciprocal. Workers toil and sweat, making both mental and physical sacrifices; but at the same time, the challenge helps them develop, learn, and grow.

As a means of a formal learning, volunteerism smudges the pencil-drawn lines of academia. The results of its hands-on, dirty-fingernailed lessons are much more difficult to measure than, say, a test on logarithms or the Cold War. And compared to course syllabi, textbooks, or photocopied handouts, its learning tools are intangible.

But such secondary sources can't possibly offer the same breadth or depth of firsthand experience.

"You can read about Third World development in Newsweek or Time, but it really doesn't sink in," says Debbie Fillis, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer teaching in Namibia. "For me, at least, I didn't really understand it until I was seeing it every day."

Fillis is one of approximately 6700 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees stationed in 80 countries around the world. Since the agency's inception in 1961, during the Kennedy administration, the US has sent 152,000 volunteers to 134 countries in an attempt to "promote world peace and friendship" through service and immersion.

To Fillis, the Peace Corps promotes perspective, too. "Americans are so self-centered," she says. "There's so much in the world you can't see from its ivory tower."

After three months of teaching math and natural economy (environmental biology) to Namibian teenagers in the 11th grade, the BC grad discovered something that would make an American feminist -- or any independent woman in the Northern hemisphere -- cringe. Fillis noticed that female "learners" (Namibian students) weren't, well, learning.

"I asked them, 'What's the problem? Why don't girls do work?' And they all said, 'Miss, girls are too busy doing their boyfriends' laundry,' " Fillis says with a sigh. "Meanwhile, all the boys here have at least two girlfriends."

So she and a few other teachers decided to launch an after-school girls' club in hopes that the special attention would encourage the young women to study. Although the informal club has been meeting for only a month, Fillis has already noticed a difference.

"My math class is a lot of girls. At the beginning of the year, I could tell they'd never understood a word of math in their lives. But since we've been meeting and I've been tutoring them, these girls are getting math," she says. "Seeing progress is really, really nice."

As for her own personal progress, Fillis reflects, "I've learned more about myself and about the way the world works in the Peace Corps than I ever would've in a grad program."

And she has a point. Ninety-minute lectures and 10-page papers on Namibian culture can teach a lot, but few lectures rival the richness of cross-cultural immersion. Wearing Namibian dress, hitchhiking on African roads, and using the Afrikaans language provide a vivid cultural experience that's all but impossible to gain from a speech or a book.

Think of volunteering as an extension of conventional classroom learning, not a rejection of it. Teaching math and science in Africa for two years can supplement a bachelor's degree. Spending Saturdays hammering nails in Quincy can complement a career. And unlike even the most educational academic course, these sweaty gestures reach out to those in need and invest in the common good.

City Year, a subdivision of the government-funded AmeriCorps National Service Network, operates under this very premise. The program offers young people ages 17 through 24 an opportunity to serve their urban community full-time for a year. The Boston-based program doesn't consider itself a substitute for school, but it recognizes that many people in this age group do remove themselves from academic settings for various reasons. City Year has worked with more than 3000 young people since 1988. With its strict guidelines (chronic tardiness will get a member expelled) and rigorous schedule (physical training first thing every morning, rain or shine), it has helped many of them refocus, build a future, and employ their talents in disparate corners of their community.

"After high school I wasn't prepared to go to college," says Noah Youngstrum, one of this year's corps members. But, he adds, "I wasn't ready to work a full-time job, either."

For more information

Habitat for Humanity International
121 Habitat Street
Americus, GA 31709
(912) 924-6935, ext. 2551 or 2552

South Shore Habitat for Humanity International
28 River Street
Braintree, MA 02184
(781) 843-9080
(781) 843-9518

City Year
285 Columbus Avenue
Boston, MA 02116
(617) 927-2500
Fax: (617) 927-2510

Peace Corps
1111 20th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20526
(800) 424-8580

After a year and a half of working in elementary schools as a corps member, Youngstrum says that "City Year has been the greatest thing for me. Now I'm prepared to work hard and put in the extra effort." The 19-year-old Jamaica Plain native has even won two public-service awards during his time with City Year, giving him $10,000 dollars in scholarship money to put toward that extra effort at UMass Boston next fall.

Not only did City Year "make a huge difference" in his life, but it also allowed Youngstrum to make a huge difference in someone else's life.

Last year, when he was a library assistant at the Quincy elementary school, in Chinatown, "there was a fifth-grader there named Jason. He had been suspended three times and wasn't allowed to go on field trips anymore," Youngstrum recalls. "Jason has ADD [Attention Deficit Disorder] and so do I, so the principal of the school asked me to be this kid's personal chaperone on field trips."

Jason was so well-behaved with Youngstrum that the school arranged for the corps member to tutor Jason in math every day.

"We did math, and his math grades improved," Youngstrum says, "but another thing we did was talk. He would have these strong emotions about the way the teacher was treating him. I would tell him, 'That's your right to have these feelings, but when you get in trouble because you're mad at the teacher, you just cut off your own nose.' "

Looking back, Youngstrum says, "I think I really got through to him. He didn't have a father at home, and his big brother had moved out many years ago. I felt like I was able to be there for him. It was the coolest experience."

Of course, there's no university certificate issued for being a good influence on a young boy, teaching teenage girls math, or building a family's future house. But any of these accomplishments might just be "the coolest experience."

And how do you test that?

Camille Dodero is an Online Content Coordinator for the Boston Phoenix.

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